March 29, 2009

Cranmer

If you have not heard of Cranmer then you really ought to check him out.

I do not mean Thomas Cranmer, the sixteenth century English politician and Archbishop of Canterbury who did Henry VIII's bidding and was largely responsible for the process of transforming England from a Catholic into a Protestant country. You might say he campaigned for the power of State over Religion.

In fact, he is an interesting character study. Priests, in that pre-Protestant era were not allowed to marry. Of course many of them got up to "monkey business", including popes with their batteries of "nephews"! But Cranmer actually married, although he had to keep it a secret for 14 years. By all accounts he was very devoted to his wife and she to him.

Cranmer paid for his support of Protestantism with his life. When Henry VIII's Catholic daughter, Mary Tudor, "Bloody Mary", came to the throne, she tried to reverse the reforms and Cranmer was put on trial. To try to save his life he recanted. Something Jews, too, often had to do in those religiously barbaric days. It didn’t help. As he was about to be executed, he defiantly recanted his recantation. So I guess whether he is a hero or not depends, as always, on whose side you are on.

If you have seen the television series The Tudors, you saw him portrayed as a weasel, a toady, a snake. I guess the writers had an agenda. But to many he represents that long and slow move towards Anglican openness and tolerance that many admire.

Nowadays the Anglican Church gets a bad rap for being so open-minded that it hardly stands for anything (as Cole Porter put it, "anything goes"). And I have to admit that I have often written negative pieces about the moral relativism of its archbishops, its tendency to face all directions simultaneously, and the intellectual indefensibility of its divines sitting in the parliamentary House of Lords and voting on matters they ought, by rights, not to.

Their lily-livered cowardice in refusing to stand up and protest Islamic attempts to roll back freedom of conscience and practice in the UK is one of the reasons why the fight for European cultural integrity has all but been abandoned. Nothing typifies the weakness of a liberal, middle-of-the-road position more than Anglicanism does, which, in part, is why more extreme sectors like the African Anglicans are breaking away to move closer to their Charismatic rivals and why charismatic churches in the UK are doing so much better than the Anglican establishment. Yet for all that, as the church fragments and Anglicans and Episcopalians slide gently towards irrelevance, I have to say I regret the loss.

As demonic, defiant, religious banshees scream and howl for their gods to punish nonbelievers, it is such a shame that the old tolerant C of E is nowhere to be seen. I recall the good old days of the CND marches fifty years ago, which were civilized, gentlemanly demonstrations. Vicarly marches from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square, where children were able to amble alongside adults with not a fear in the world. Nowadays you would have to be a child abuser to take one along to demonstrations of the aggressive savages who now typically posture and threaten for the right to oppress others.

Do not be misled into thinking that all C of E vicars were all tolerant, ineffectual, bumbling nonentities like the ones Jane Austen likes to describe. In 1754 when Parliament passed the Jew Bill, giving Jews equal rights, it was the Clerics of the C of E who led the opposition, with silly charges that Jews would insist that all Englishmen get circumcised and be forced to give up pork, that led to the bill being repealed and another hundred hears wait until equality was achieved, at least on paper. In 1975 I was invited to 'say grace' at a meeting of top English headmasters and five Anglicans headmasters walked out in protest at what they perceived as a threat to the religious integrity of their organization. So the fact is that the Church of England's record is hardly perfect. But there have been, as indeed there are everywhere, some very significant exceptions; during the Second World War, Anglican archbishops were amongst the only churchmen to publicly take a stand against the extermination of the Jews.

I have gone into this long, apparently irrelevant excursion because of another Cranmer. He of the blog.

Because if you want to see why, despite everything I have written, I have a very soft spot for the C of E, it is because of men like him. Read what he writes. You will not find a more balanced, sensitive, and open Christian view of the world than his. And when the Talmud talks about the Pious of the Nations having a place in the World to Come, I reckon he'll be right up there with the other least expected candidates for our version of sainthood.

March 22, 2009

Negativity

Looking back at my posts over recent weeks, I am reminded of how easy it is to fall into the trap of feeling a victim. And inevitably, this feeling of being under attack distorts one's perspective. Of course I respond to attacks on Jews. I defend our religion and I defend Israel when I feel the attacks are dishonest or unfair. I have this obligation, duty, and mission that I feel very good about. And yet I know full well there is a lot to criticize in the religion I love and in the country that commands my devotion.

Years ago I participated in a British television religious documentary series in which a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim were invited to discuss some important issues together and separately. The encounter was civilized and interesting, but in the end merely anodyne and, I suspect, rather boring. You see every speaker airbrushed his own religion; as a result it was simply an exercise in grandstanding.

I had initially intended to be honest and in addition to all the positive and wonderful things I love about Judaism, I was going to mention its lacunae: the areas where its followers failed to live up to its standards, contemplated their own navels and dismissed others, put power and money over ideals, self-preservation over truth, and conformity and blind obedience to dogma over intellectual honesty. I had wanted to confess that I thought the treatment of women in Orthodox circles still left a lot to be desired; that rabbinic authority was too often corrupt and self-serving, that observance of details had superseded spiritual ecstasy, that materialism had distorted and devalued almost every area of Jewish life, that social control and manipulation had become the be all and end all of huge swathes of Jewish life.

Of course I knew the reasons for all this. I knew that anyone under attack becomes defensive, that thousands of years of anti-Semitism inevitably had left us with huge chips on both our shoulders, that, as with any family, loyalty distorts vision and objectivity. Yes, I was going to admit our faults and paint an honest picture rather than pretend that everything was rosy in our garden.

But then I listened to the lovely, gentle Muslim Imam, toward whom I had felt so warmly in the meetings planning the series, who spoke before me. The subject of our first program was the treatment of women in our respective religions. He declared to the cameras how wonderful Islam was for women, how free they were, treated as complete equals, and living in a veritable state of perfect bliss. He declared there was nothing amiss at all with life for women anywhere in the Muslim world and all good Muslim women would tell me how happy they were with their lot.

As I listened with incredulity, knowing something of the lives of women stoned to death for suspected adultery, victims of rape or of honor killings, unable to act without a husband's approval, or vote or drive or pursue an education or work. Not everywhere in the Muslim world, admittedly, but in plenty of places. At that moment I thought, "Well blow me down; if that’s what he is saying about Islam, when I know the reality is nothing like that, why should I wash our dirty linen in public if everyone else is claiming he has none?"

And so it was. I did the same as he did. I lied and I argued that Judaism, too, did not discriminate in any way. But I thought to myself that I was doing it for the right reason. But I have felt guilty about it ever since. Actually, not guilty. Guilt, other than the recognition of having done wrong, is not at all a healthy emotion if it lingers; it is destructive. But I do regret that I was not honest.

So now, as I look back at my polemics, I can see how easily I have fallen into the trap of anger with Islam and with Muslims who preach hatred, and to extrapolate from their sick minds when I should have been more sensitive to the fact that there are abusers of every religion within their own ranks and at the same time many fine upright and spiritual practitioners who must not be tarred with the same brush.

I have heard plenty of horrible ideas come out of the mouths of rabbis and all kinds of Jews, no less disturbing in their way than things I hear from Islamofascists. If our extremists do not slit innocent throats, still, I have seen enough religious aggression in sectors of Judaism, directed at insiders and outsiders, to know that it’s a fine line, and given the circumstances and opportunities, the disease of religious fascism is contagious.

I know wonderful Muslims who are exceptional human beings and, in my opinion, beloved of God and closer to God than many Jews I know. But I feel how easy it is to fall into the trap of condemning whole peoples and religions. Others do it of course but I think we need to try even harder not to.

We are all in pain for one reason or another; we must not let this pain obscure our shared humanity and respect for individuals who respect us. I know I have so often repeated this but I must do so again. We are commanded in the Torah to remember, but never to hate. We can realize that we have enemies, but to assume all humans are like that, or to hate indiscriminately, or to think we are the only ones suffering, is a betrayal of our Jewish values. We have celebrated the joys of life on Purim. We are heading towards the delights of Pesach. Our culture is one in which joy trumps pain every time, so let us be happy, revel in what we have, and "not let the bastards get us down."

March 13, 2009

Durban II

You may recall the scandalous "World Conference Against Racism" in Durban in 2001. United Nations initiated, funded, and promoted what turned into an unabashed, orchestrated orgy of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli hatred. While humans were being murdered, raped, and discriminated against in most of the countries sitting on the Human Rights Council, the only aim was to vilify Israel and accuse it of racism. There was no debate, no free exchange of ideas. Any attempt at an alternative viewpoint was howled down. As with most fanatics, abuse was the only tool of persuasion. Aggressive posturing is associated with chimpanzees and with humans who know they are talking rubbish.

Now I am not pushing the victim line that everyone hates us. A lot clearly do and want us dead. Neither am I suggesting Israel or the Jews are anywhere near perfect. I accept that two wrongs do not make a right. No, I am arguing exclusively about honesty and debate.

Durban I demonstrated once again the danger of the UN. Dictators who deprive citizens of equality are in charge of its agencies, and evil men like Robert Mugabe, who deprives his own people of food, or Ahmadinejad, who preaches genocide, or Chavez, who trashes synagogues, are feted and applauded.

Durban II has arrived. The follow-up conference will be held in Geneva in April. Despite assurances that it would not be allowed to turn into another example of racism itself, it will be just that. What is more, it will campaign to ban any criticism of Islam as racism. In other words, anything that Islam does must be right, above reproach, and protected from criticism. Everyone who disagrees is wrong and racist.

America and the EU promised to ensure there would be no repeat of Durban I. They deluded themselves into thinking the UN Human Rights sickos are interested in logic or open discussion. After seeing the scheduled proceedings and motions, the USA, Canada, and Italy have now joined Israel in refusing to attend because it is clear that nothing can be done to prevent the dogs returning to their vomit. The EU is prevaricating because it is frightened of its Muslim minorities. The criminals have been put in charge of the courts. Anyone who tries to present a different viewpoint is simply ostracized; the conference removes the credentials of any group such as the World Union of Progressive Judaism for daring to criticize Hamas. (Durban is such a nice place. What a shame it will now be forever associated with howling barbarians.)

So what are supposed to do?

The Book of Proverbs Chapter 26, verse 4, says, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you become like him." And then in verse 5 says, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." Surely this is an obvious contradiction?

I think it means that if a fool can in any way comprehend a different point of view, you owe it to him to try to put him right. But if you are dealing with such a closed mind that nothing can get through the prejudice or the hatred, then do not even try to engage in debate, because you may begin to wonder whether there might be something wrong with your position.

The world has gone mad. Most Muslims are killed by Muslims. They used to say it is a rich man's world. Now it is a world run by crooks and fools. You can lie about anything, distort images, if it aids Islamic politics. It is time to use the same kind of tactics--crude and simplistic slogans--to fight back. No, of course we must not sacrifice our morality, but we can play power games too.

It reminds me of an incident when I was a headmaster, many years ago, and I used to train and travel with a school soccer team. Most of the schools we went to were English town and country schools where no one had ever seen a Jew before, and not a few were Christian religious institutions. Invariably our opponents would swear and curse us. It was part of the competitive rough-and-tumble of UK soccer where you try to intimidate the other side in any way you can. Most of the time I would advise our boys to ignore it. On one occasion the cursing got so bad and focused so crudely and specifically on Jews that the kids were getting really distressed. At halftime they asked me what to do. I said, "The next time someone kicks you and calls you a f*****g Jew, just turn round and call him a f*****g Christian." Amazingly, within five minutes of the restart the cursing stopped.

I'm not suggesting these should be the only tactics we use. We must combat hatred in lots of different ways, including examining our own tactics and politics. But we need to invest heavily in the propaganda war. We know from the commercial world how easy it is to manipulate.

To retreat behind a fortress, either militarily or ideologically, is a defeatist position. When faced with such manifest prejudice, no attempt at reason will work. The UN proves this is a waste of time and energy.

We should be at Geneva--not inside but outside, in front of the cameras with our own slogans. Boycott anyone who boycotts Jews. Quote statistics of how many die in other conflicts. Scrap the UN and use the billions saved for an international bailout!

March 05, 2009

Purim Now

We have always reinterpreted Biblical stories to suit changing times. One of my favorite examples of how fanciful it can become is the relatively modern "conceit" that the Ten Sons of Haman hint at or predict to the Ten Nazis sentenced to death at the trials at Nuremburg. Actually 12 were sentenced to death but Goering, who was said to have declared that the Jews will celebrate a Second Purim, cheated the gallows by taking poison and Martin Bormann was convicted in absentia. The hangman was an American called John Woods. The Ten Sons of Haman were hung on gallows, which is "Etz" in Hebrew, and the Hebrew for "Wood" is also "Etz". Of course, "Woods" would be "Eytzim", but never mind, after a few bottles of vodka it sounds good!

Yet with Ahmadinejad, a latter day Haman, publicly declaring his intention of destroying Israel, one is bound to see modern parallels. There is the issue of dual loyalty that has not gone away over the two thousand five hundred years or so since Mordechai was accused of being an alien and worshipping according to an alien religion. You cannot trust these Jews, you know! He had proved his loyalty to the king by revealing the Bigtan and Teresh plot. (See, plots and assassinations seem to have been part of life forever and the Middle East a hotbed of intrigue and deviousness forever. That has not changed.)

Mordechai's loyalty only comes out later when the king needs a bedtime story to put him to sleep. He commands the chronicler to read the archives. I guess it was either the most exciting book available or the most boring and sleep inducing. This was, after all, before computerization but it does show how inefficient and incompetent bureaucratic systems have always been with us. And given that Persia is supposed, by those who know, to be an Aryan race, and so too were the Nazis, there certainly seems to be a contradiction there in terms of governmental efficiency.

The Book of Esther is a Political Satire

A lazy incompetent chief executive spends too much time enjoying himself. He partakes but does not inhale and loves parties. He does not get on too well with his talented wife so he seeks comfort elsewhere getting drunk with willing young virgins. He dispenses pork barrel largesse to keep his states united. He lays on a relay of expenses-paid junkets to the capital for legislators, which altogether last for 180 days, in which he reassures the doubters that his economic policies are working. Then, to please the locals in the main city, who begin to show resentment at the influx of out-of-towners, he lays on another seven-day shindig, including some the best known performers and media tycoons.

Old racial animosities raise their ugly heads, but he is constrained by Supreme Court procedure. Fortunately, his newest girlfriend happens to be Jewish, from a family of well known rabbis, and she reminds the CE of his election commitments. Various Jewish lobbies get to work and exert pressure and, although freedom of speech has to be allowed and anti-Semites can continue saying what they like, any attempt at violence may be met proactively.

The threat is pre-empted. Persistent offenders are sent to jail. To celebrate, the Big Man reduces taxes across the board (also to stimulate an economy in recession and shore up the banks who unwisely committed their reserves to support a risky and illegal venture). Religious leaders try to claim credit for the successful outcome, but are fortunately left out of the narrative.

The Book of Esther is a Religious Story

A people is threatened with destruction simply because it is loyal to its religious ideals. God intervenes but not in an overt way. Using human agents He gives the impression that the crisis is solved through their good offices when in fact He is orchestrating everything from a different sphere. What appears fixed and firm one moment is overturned the next. That is life--unpredictable. Joy turns to sadness and back again. Enemies suddenly disappear, threats recede and everyone lives happily and ethically ever after, increasing goodwill, charity, and religious devotion, rather than self-indulgent materialism. Meanwhile, God takes no public credit and does not even ask for a mention (certainly not an Oscar), leading skeptics to claim He was not there at all.

The story also reminds us that the majority of the members of the Persian Empire were not against the Jews and did not take advantage of the opportunity to attack them. The actual numbers who did are relatively small. The text repeats several times that the Jews refused to touch any of the spoil, but were simply engaged in self-defense.

I have seen it argued (Elliot Horowitz, Reckless Rites) that this is a story of bloody vengeance and vindictiveness that encouraged violence. I believe that closer examination reveals that it is really about prejudice, distorted arguments, lies, and irrational hatred. The dual response is proactive--self-defense and harnessing spiritual energy as well--to overcome the opposition. It is about people as varied in personality as Esther and Mordechai from their very different positions within the Jewish and non-Jewish hierarchy, as well as the combined positive energy and cooperation of the Jewish people coming together to respond to the threat.

Certainly worth celebrating, and as relevant today as ever. It reminds us that we can get too overconfident and apathetic in the Diaspora, taking our safety for granted. We may fail to respond to danger until it is so late that by then the way back is far more difficult.