February 24, 2009

Democraphobia

Intellectual and political fashions come and go. Enlightenment loosened the grip exercised by religious authority on free thought, but then in France the liberators became murderers. Nationalism destroyed the old European autocratic empires, but then nationalism proved to be a force for xenophobic evil and destruction. History came to an end according to the American, Fukayama, and then he changed his mind when it did not. The collapse of the USSR heralded the end of Soviet communist oppression, and then Putin brought corrupt authoritarianism back. The failure of a socialist empire left capitalism the undisputed king of financial systems, and now capitalism is shown to have been corrupt and dishonest. Every time we think we have a new and perfect system it is eventually revealed to be a failure. The only consistent shining light has been freedom, of action and thought, and the belief in democracy. But now democracy itself is conspiring in its own destruction.

We had "isms"--anti-Semitism, nationalism, socialism, Zionism. And we have "phobias", such as Islamophobia, and now what strikes me as democraphobia. A phobia can be a fear of something (e.g., arachnophobia), as well as a hatred of something. Now Islamophobia should mean irrational, unwarranted antipathy to Muslims, and there can be no place for such prejudice in any humane society. But in practice it has come to mean fear of offending or disagreeing with Muslims, a fear of Muslim violence.

Actually I think it was a gross error to create the term Islamophobia. Hardly anyone understands Islam, and it is not the religion that people have difficulty with so much as with the extremists who, as in every faith, select or emphasize elements from it to suit their ideology. The term, therefore, should be Muslimphobia. Just as the anti-Semite hates Jews as people.

Many European courts and politicians will allow behavior to go unpunished that, were it not for fear, would be dealt with--honor murder, wife beating, and polygamy, for example--because they contravene the values of free democratic societies. Freedom of speech is curtailed for fear of violence. Once upon a time Salman Rushdie was protected from a fatwa. Now he would be expected to recant.

Geert Wilders, the Dutch MP, produced the short film Fitna. It is a one-sided, but not inaccurate, portrayal of one aspect of Islam that does indeed exist (like a film about Hassidim could be a true but one-sided and misleading portrayal of Judaism as a whole). He was barred from entering England for a peaceful discussion about the rights and wrongs of his film for fear of Islamic protest, whereas preachers who call for conversion of Europe into a theocratic Muslim state which will overthrow democracy and its values are protected.

As all United Nations events, the dangerous farce of the World Conference against Racism, the so-called Durban II, will be completely distorted in its focus and condemnation of Israel as against any and every other form of human abuse in the world today. (The first Durban Conference, in 2001, turned into an orgy of hate directed exclusively at Israel and Jews.) It will proceed out of fear of offending Islamic opinion and its salivating running dogs of the Left. Believe me, those Western free countries that profess disapproval of the bias of UN organizations and a commitment to ameliorate the distortions of the conference, will retreat from the field of battle, tails between their legs, for fear of offending too big a slice of world opinion, however primitive it may be.

I would actually welcome any and all criticism of Israel if an equal and proportional amount of time would be devoted to examples of Muslim oppression, racism, and genocide. But of course we know it will not.

So once again the free world will betray its values. Left Wing secularists will ally with homophobic, antidemocratic, theocratic fascists, rather than examine the honesty of their delusions and hatreds. They need a cause. How much easier to adopt one that brings moral and financial support from billions rather than a few million.

Under the pretext of good relations, Western democracies are now scared to stand for their values. They have all but ceded the field of play out of fear. Democraphobia is not the fear of democracy, which exists in nondemocratic countries such as China or religiously dominated societies. Rather it is the even more craven fear of fighting for democracy. It is the political lust for power that is so strong that in pursuit of fundamentalist votes it betrays its own values.

You can see this in the EU. No wonder the Czech Republic has used its presidency to decry hypocrisy and the double standard in which political leadership says the right thing in public but in practice allows a climate of antagonism toward those who try to resist the wave of monochromatic hate ideology. As Vaclav Klaus said, there is "an uncriticizable assumption that there is only one possible and correct future of the European integration. Those who dare thinking about a different option are labeled enemies" (New York Times, 02/20). That's because the diseased mindset that condemns only Israel and Jews has now infected the whole of the European body politic. Only one way of thinking is politically correct.

A genuine free society is one in which all positions are treated with respect so long as they accord respect to others in return. Human rights are paramount. But if someone campaigns to destroy human rights he has no place in a society based on them. Yet extremists who preach destruction of western values are awarded compensation if they are detained.

With such cowardice now the norm, the values of free societies are being eroded. Democracy is feared because it insists on freedom, honesty, and fairness. But democracies themselves no longer stand for those values because they are frightened. They are frightened of their own values because they may have to fight for them and it is easier to give in and give up. That is why democraphobia is leading to the collapse of Western freedoms, just as lust for money has led to the collapse of Western finance. Recognizing the disease is the first step towards a cure.

February 23, 2009

Hebrew Language

There is a trend in certain sections of Israeli society to repudiate everything Jewish. This isn't new. There was a Canaanite movement in early Zionism that wanted to remove any Jewish element and replace it by emulating the early Canaanites (but not, I gather, their human sacrifices or temple prostitution)! They named themselves and their children either Canaanite names or after Biblical Israelite kings who adopted Canaanite customs. Like other fads in nonreligious Judaism, it came and went. In fact, many of the Canaanites left Israel. You can find some of them buried in the Anglican cemetery in St. Moritz, whilst the grandchildren of religious anti-Zionists are swarming back to the land of their forefathers, buying homes, setting up businesses, procreating, and in some cases fighting in the army.

In one way, the Canaanite movement has indeed survived. The current resurgence of Israeli self-rejection and submission is a direct heir of the Canaanite movement. The most extremely abusive and offensive language I have ever heard used against Israel has been from the mouths of Israelis (and I have heard some pretty hate-filled speeches from Arab sources in my time too). It is a way of repudiating Jewish identity.

New schools of archaeologists argue there has never been a Jewish presence in the land. The Bible is automatically discounted as false, whereas the flimsiest of pseudoscientific theories is given absolute credence. References to "The House of David" in non-Jewish sources nearly three thousand years ago are said to be misreadings. Of course one can argue about exact dates. The Bible itself disagrees. Check out King Hezekia's reign as dated in Kings 2 and then compare with Chronicles and you'll get nicely confused. And maybe King Solomon's stables were built by Uzzia instead, and the gates of Hazor by Josiah, and some of David's psalm were written by the waters of Babylon. But no one can dispute the objective evidence of a clearly definable Jewish settlement far longer than 2,000 years ago, unless you want to argue that Jesus was a Muslim.

Arthur Koestler claimed that the Jews who returned to Israel in the nineteenth century were really Russians of Caucasian origin. Only Muslim ideologues (or Noam Chomsky) take that seriously.

The latest in the fad of Israeli self-destruction is to argue that the Hebrew language, as "resurrected" by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in the nineteenth century, has absolutely nothing in common with the ancient Hebrew language, and really ought to be called Israeli, not Ivrit, Hebrew. It is true that when I was at school we studied Classical Hebrew, Post-Biblical Hebrew, as well as Modern Hebrew, but fluency in one certainly helped in the others. Classical Hebrew was a greater help in learning Ivrit than Latin was to Italian, or Ancient Greek to Modern!

Of course languages change over time. English students now need cribs to understand Chaucer or Shakespeare, and even Dickens. Americans speak a version that is difficult to understand by many native-born English speakers but then a Cockney (a Londoner born in earshot of Bows Bells) can make little sense out of his Glaswegian drinking partner. Australian is indeed sometimes called "Strine", and I think what the Americans speak should be called "American". But you cannot say they have no common origin.

In the fifties new words kept on emerging in Israel to give Hebrew-based equivalents of modern technological terms. And an interesting study could be made of why some new words stuck and others did not. In Hebrew they tried ram-kol (literally "Raise the Sound"), but "microphone" took over! In those days the command economy tried to dominate language too the way the French have desperately and pointlessly tried through the Academie to preserve the purity of French. Certain words resist, others just stick. In French "ordinateur" has resisted "computer", but "internet" has won hands down.


But now I am beginning to wonder whether the Canaanite mentality has not in fact taken over. My brother sent me an article by Gershon Baskin in the Jerusalem Post which casts serious doubt on the motives of those who went to war against Hamas in Gaza. If it is true, it challenges the integrity of Israeli politicians. Going to war for war's sake is a Canaanite way of looking at the world, not a Jewish way. It is indeed Jewish to defend and to attack in defence of one's integrity, but not to wage war when peace might have been negotiated. What God did was His business, but the laws for ongoing human conflict were very specific (Deuteronomy 20:10). Pure physical aggression is just why the Canaanites failed and we who rejected such an ideology survived. I hope I am wrong and Baskin is not reliable. But still, the whole sorry mess of politics and materialism makes me wonder if even many Orthodox Jews are more Canaanite than Jewish. All the wrong values seem to be flourishing and the genuine spiritual ones are in retreat.

You cannot deep-freeze the past. The bodies we have today are very different to those we were born with. But if we want Jewish values to persist we need to constantly reinvigorate them and apply them. Because the dominant values all around us are Canaanite, whether East or West, we are in danger of losing our specifically Jewish souls.

February 16, 2009

Racists

In the Israeli elections, as always, tempers flared and language was used that should not have been. There is one word that was thrown around in a way that is particularly dangerous and inflammatory. That is when one accuses someone of being a racist. Race is a very specific and technical issue.

Avigdor Lieberman, the Russian born politician, former nightclub bouncer, and suspect businessman, has led his party of rightwing mainly Russian secular Israelis to power-broking influence. His platform includes transferring swathes of Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian territories against their will, imposing a loyalty oath on Arab citizens, as well as compulsory military service (I trust he also intends to do the same with the Charedi community). Such policies can neither achieve nor guarantee security or loyalty. But, as much as I dislike Lieberman and everything he stands for (except separating State from Religion), when left wing journalists such as Gideon Levy in Haaretz use the word "racist" in writing about him, it is time to protest.

It is the very language that the discredited United Nations used to condemn all Zionists when it passed the notorious motion that "Zionism is Racism". It is the language that both Christian and Muslim anti-Semites have adopted as a way of smearing and delegitimizing Israel and insulting Judaism. Ironically, it is the language that the Israeli Knesset used in 1985 to ban Meir Kahane. Happy as I was to see him marginalized, in my opinion it was a gross error to use racism as the justification.

It is not that I disagree with the point of Levy's condemnation. Lieberman has built up a party on anti-Arab rhetoric. Doubtless he would deny he is anti-Arab, only anti those Arabs who want to see the disappearance of a Jewish State. He has not said he wants to remove Arab Israeli democratic rights, representation, or citizenship. So I cannot see upon what basis he can be a racist. Prejudiced, selective, indeed but not on the basis of a person's genes and that is what race is, nothing to do with opinions.

I remember listening to Kahane speak in public years ago, just before he was blocked from the Knesset. What offended me was not his perception of the challenge or the problems or the potential threat to Israeli security or the double standards of many Arab Israeli politicians, but the crude way he dismissed all Arabs in precisely the way Arab fanatics dismiss all Jews. It is a sad fact that the language of Kahane and his heirs has now become acceptable by a significant sector of Israeli society, as Levy correctly points out. Nothing in Judaism justifies racism. There is no halachic source that in any way makes race a criterion, only acceptance of a specific way of life. But to use the word racist was and is simply inaccurate and dangerous.

Of course, like every country, Israel can define its criteria for citizenship. It is no argument to put to a US immigration clerk that your criminal record ought not to matter since many Americans have criminal records. But rejecting an applicant on that basis is not racism unless it is applied only to one race. You might argue that the "Law of Return" giving any Jew who is persecuted a haven in Israel is racist because it applies only to Jews. But it isn't; it is preferential. Black halachic Jews--and there are more than most people realize--qualify for the Law of Return. Whatever it might be, it too cannot be racist (and I am no big defender of the Law of Return as it presently is framed).

There are laws in many countries banning offensive, divisive, and discriminatory language. Free speech does not and must not involve stirring up hatred. But someone who targets a sector of a society for special attention is not necessarily racist, whatever else he or she may be. Dangerous generalizations are wrong, but not necessarily racist. The situation in Israel is indeed a delicate one. It is not pleasant to hear Arab members of the Knesset support those who wish to destroy the Jewish State. We have seen in recent years how intercommunity enmity can be stirred up, in former Yugoslavia, in Central Africa, and of course in the Middle East. But the solution does not lie in mislabelling the offence.

It will be argued that the Arab minority in Israel is a dangerous fifth column. That argument was levelled at Jews in Germany when there was not a shred of evidence to support the claim. In fact, today some 65% of Europeans polled think Jews are not loyal. In the case of the Israeli Arab population, there is indeed now evidence of a wave of support for Israel's enemies. One of the reasons is that they have been marginalized and treated as suspect second-class citizens within Israeli society for fifty years. You cannot mistreat a minority and then expect it to love you. Neither has any democratic government succeeded in repatriating its problems. Enoch Powell, British politician notorious for his "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968, thought he could publicly recommend forcing West Indians back home and he lost political power forever. You can encourage but you cannot force. You can impose conscription, but that will be no guarantee of safety or of loyalty. You have to win minds and hearts. At one stage Israel did this successfully with its Druze Community. Once it had its Christian Arab community on its side. No longer. Ham-fisted nationalists of the Kahane/Lieberman school, as well as incompetent bureaucracy and governmental neglect, put paid to most goodwill.

There are no easy solutions to any of the problems Israel faces, but stirring up hatred can only make matters worse. This goes for right wingers like Lieberman, and it also goes for left wing Israelis who use equally offensive language to smear their opponents. Cheap slogans make rapprochement ever harder and less likely. If world Jewry now suffers from the almost universal condoning of terms of abuse against us, we need to be careful not to trade in the same currency. If too many other humans are behaving and thinking like cavemen, that is all the more reason for us not to.

February 08, 2009

The Vatican

It is not my business to tell another religion what to do unless its actions impact directly on me.

I despise the mix of religion in politics. Politics, like diplomacy, is the art of hiding the truth in order to achieve specific tangible goals that may have little to do with spirit or morality. Nothing devalues religion more than its power plays.

For a change I am not talking about Judaism, but about the Vatican, which has been playing politics for two thousand years. Yes, there have been some good and spiritual popes. But for every pope that defended Jews there were more who attacked and expelled them from their dominions and burnt their books. Take Pius IX who kidnapped the Jewish child, Edgar Mortara, and refused to hand him back to his parents. Or indeed Pius XII who, as Papal Nuncio to Hitler, entered into a defensive concordat with the Devil at the price of never publicly mentioning the fate of the Jews throughout the Nazi era, and refused appeals to hand back Jewish children given refuge during the war.

I admired Pope John XXIII, who singlehandedly pushed the Catholic Church to repudiate its doctrine that the Jews were cursed for rejecting Jesus as their Messiah (barely 40 years ago I might add). But ever since, warring factions in Rome have been busy in a game of tug-of-war where any pro-Jewish or pro-Israel statement or move has to be counterbalanced by an opposite one. That’s diplomacy, or politics, for you.

I wonder why just now the Vatican has decided to lift the excommunication on four priests involved in the notoriously anti-Semitic Marcel Lefebvre's conservative breakaway movement that considered Pope John XXIII an anti-pope. Amongst those exonerated is the notorious Richard Williamson, who denies the Holocaust and thinks 9/11 was a Zionist plot. It is true the pope has wanted to bring the archconservatives back into the fold for a long time. But the timing of the reconciliation is no coincidence. In the same way that the opinion of a senior cardinal that what happened in Gaza is another Holocaust can only be a declaration approved by the top for political purposes. Terrible, unnecessary, excessive--call it what you will, but to compare it to the Holocaust is, in itself, evil. And who is fooled when the pope makes a special radio statement about how terrible the Holocaust was? Right hands and left hands, good cops and bad cops. It is all part of the game of having your cake and eating it.

Now I personally don’t give a fig whom the Vatican makes a saint of; so why am I even raising it? Some argue that Israel needs allies and to be on good terms with the Vatican. And I have it on good authority that Israel has not behaved as it should have towards the Vatican over agreements on Church property in Israel. But then that’s a diplomatic matter, not a religious one. Others argue that we need good relations with Christianity in order to counterbalance the anti-Semitism of most of Islam. But then, many Churches are as antithetic to Israel as Islam.

Interestingly, the Charedi world finds it easier to talk to Imams than to Christian priests. Islam is, after all, regarded as monotheistic, and an oath in the name of Allah counts the same as an oath in the name of God. Whereas Catholicism, with its literal Trinity and imagery, is still regarded as idolatry by most Charedi rabbis.

Catholicism, for its part, still believes it is the sole possessor of truth. Even if recent popes have liked to call us the Children of Abraham and in possession of an ancient covenant, nevertheless they continue to hope and pray that one day we will see the light. Our Southern Baptist Christian allies go even further, believing we have no chance at all if we stay as we are! At least their support has been total and undivided, but as Voltaire said, "Lord protect me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies." To use a modern Hebrew phrase, "Kabdeyhu VeChashdeyhu"--respect but suspect! So I respect diplomats and ecumenicalists, as I do those politicians who try to build bridges regardless of their true motives. But I try not to fool myself.

It is all very well for liberals of all faiths to meet together in amicable discussion, but if none of it filters down to the rest what is the point? I recall a conversation twenty years ago with the late Cardinal Konig of Vienna. He said that regardless of the new Vatican teaching on Jews, he had no power over the country priests of Austria who continued their anti-Semitic teaching and preaching. The same holds true of much of Christianity still today. There are indeed good and noble cardinals who genuinely seek reconciliation, but for everyone one of them there are two of the others.

You may have seen that remarkable YouTube video of a Portuguese Catholic service of reconciliation in which the whole Church reverberated to "Shema Yisrael" sung in Hebrew. It was very moving. That is one side of the coin. The other is that if the pope does not realize that rehabilitating a Holocaust denier is an insult to the memory of those who died, then frankly dialogue is not working. Angela Merkel understands this. Why does not he?

Now the Vatican has ordered him to recant. But evidence of his views was placed before the pope months ago. Since then Williamson has repeated his hate on Swedish media. Clearly the Vatican has realized it has made more than a public relations mess and is trying to patch things up, but it is all crisis management. That it happened at all is a symptom of the problem.

February 01, 2009

What is a Jew?

In the hurly burly of political conflict, abuse is common. Friends fall out and identities are tested. Boundaries of loyalty are stretched and sometimes broken. The current situation in the Middle East is a perfect example of a crisis that tests the strongest of bonds. No Jew of any morality or sensitivity likes to see casualties, innocent or otherwise. Our religion demands that we recognize the suffering even of our enemies. We search around desperately for solutions, for different ways of doing things. We feel helpless bystanders, not always knowing the full story or what other options there are. We are disturbed by seeing hatred, hearing illogical and prejudiced opinions. Propaganda, political posturing, and preconceived positions are the enemy of reasoned debate or possible solutions.

We Jews are divided into a number of camps. At two extremes of the spectrum are Jews who are unreservedly and unquestioningly supporters of whatever Israel does, and those who are implacably opposed to Israel's existence. The middle includes those who are committed to Israel but question its military tactics and policies, those who are committed to Israel's right to self-defense and believe that deterrence is the only option under present circumstances, and all points on the spectrum in between those four positions.

Included in all these positions are religious Jews of every shade and secular Jews of every degree. Both extremes detest each other, yet will admit to being part of the same people, the same culture, and the same ethnos, if not the same religion.

It is an amazing feature of us Jews that from the moment Moses took us out of Egypt, it seems we have not all agreed on anything religious or political. Yet somehow, against the odds, we have survived and kept on coming back from the brink. We have clashed with every major civilization we have encountered. We have conflicted with every major power block at one time or another. I honestly believe our survival is a miracle. I do not believe in proofs of the existence of God (I think that is an oxymoron by definition--how can anything not physical in any way be proved using material methods?), but if ever there were proof, the survival of the Jewish people, a few million facing billions of enemies, must be it!

So what is it that keeps us together and what is it that defines us all? Wherever we are we are the archetypal outsiders. We are there, but we are not completely there. Christianity thought it had replaced us and we were condemned to be the wandering outcast Jew, and we were for a long time. There was no good reason for Judaism to survive, they thought, now that Christianity had replaced the Old Israel with the easier more convenient New. If we did survive it was a reproach, "stubborn Jewry". Changing times and ideas forced the Christian world to tolerate us, sometimes even love us, but not really accept us.

Islam, too, thought it had replaced Judaism and by rights we ought not to continue. Mohammad, like Luther after him, initially welcomed us as allies and possible converts but turned against us when we refused the invitation. There were odd dynasties who embraced us, but only so long as we knew our place. Similarly, new nation-states, in their struggle to establish national identities, found no place for Jews, and so "modern" anti-Semitism added a layer to the old. We just did not belong; even if we were given citizenship, it was with reluctance, either because we were useful or because of external pressure. Even conversion did not help. The Inquisition hunted Marranos, Jews who had converted, more aggressively than Jews who stayed Jewish. The English Prime Minister Disraeli was excoriated as a scheming Jew till the end of his days. The composer Mendelssohn was accused of spreading of corrupt Semitic music. Both men were converts to Christianity.

We were a Marxist danger to Capitalists, Capitalists to Marxists, Westerners to Easterners, and Orientals to Occidentals. And all this, simply because we survived, and we did indeed include all of these within our ranks. Our behavioral religion helped us adapt and we managed to put roots down regardless of the host society's religion or politics. We were indeed the universal scapegoat, the universal oddball, the universal outsider. And that helped us survive, too--the fact that we could take a step back and have a different perspective, the fact that we were always being moved on and had to prove ourselves. The fact that we always had challenges to overcome has made us struggle all the harder. If there is any genetic bonus to being Jewish, it was because we had to survive and Darwin was right. The fittest survive! We have fought consistently above our weight. We have had our share of crooks and saints, of Nobel prize-winners and Ponzi schemers.

In the end there is a common thread, a common unifying factor; it is this sense of belonging to an unwanted and suspect people. With it you are a complex bundle of contradictions always trying to reconcile different values and cultural strengths, but at least if you have a positive religious component this compensates. It gives one a sense of pride and spiritual direction. Those whom we call self-hating Jews are those with nothing to make them feel good about their Jewish identity.

We are hurting at the moment because we feel our alienation for different and conflicting reasons. But it appears that God thinks that sometimes we have to! If one wants to find a common denominator it is that Jews do not entirely fit in anywhere, even amongst Jews. We are archetypal outsiders, even when we think we belong. Most of the world is against us. Some Jews think deservedly so, others do not. But those who hate Jews make no distinction. That is what being a Jew is like.