June 25, 2009

Tammuz and Baddies

We have entered the Hebrew month of Tammuz, named after the Babylonian and Sumerian god Tammuz. Tammuz begins the Summer solstice and in ancient times this meant that the god of plenty died as the fierce summer heat took control of the skies. God Tammuz died and good pagan women went into mourning. Look at Ezekiel 8:14 for confirmation.

You may wonder whether it is coincidence that we Jews now begin mourning in the month of Tammuz for the loss of Jerusalem, the Temple, and our land, twice in history, precisely during Tammuz. Bad things happen in Tammuz. And frankly in the homeland of Tammuz, as I write, Muslim clerics are ordering their thugs to kill innocent human beings simply because they protest, peacefully, at the abuses of said clerics. If this is what religion stands for they can keep it!

No doubt neophyte academics eager to make a reputation will suggest the actual invasions and destructions of 586 BCE and 70 CE never took place and it is all a myth. Awkward that non-Jewish archaeology confirms the events, but that’s never got in the way of a good theory before. Still, what is a Sumerian god doing amongst the Jewish months? Indeed, if you look at what months are mentioned in the Bible and which are not, and which came to be officially recognized some 1700 years ago when we fixed our calendar, you can only conclude that external factors were an influence on language and usage.

Judaism has never existed in a vacuum, not even in the Wilderness. We always have been, and we still continue to be, influenced by external forces and cultures in one way or another. Thankfully our abuses or religion are less lethal. According to the great Jewish historian, Jacob Katz, and Israel Yuval, medieval Jews reacted to Christian Piety and monastic revivals by adopting a even stricter code of dress and ascetic custom. Maimonides created new theological responses to Islamic pressure. The Hassidic adoption of Polish baronial dress, complete with fur hats, was hardly a Mosaic custom. And the tendency to withdraw behind ever-increasing strictness was a response to the challenges of assimilation and reform.

Now it seems the Torah world is trying its best to rival Islam for severity. Fifty bus routes in Jerusalem now enforce sexual segregation with women at the back. That’s interesting. Why not men at the back? But we all know that is a stupid question. I lived in Jerusalem for six years at various times between 1957 and 1967. And I travelled on urban and interurban buses all the time. Not once did I ever come across a segregated bus.

Even down in holy Meah Shearim, where I lived for the last four of those years, did I ever notice a Charedi man object to getting on the unsegregated buses that went through Meah Shearim. Yes, they objected to semi-nudity and looked the other way when secular exhibitionists seemed to think their effulgent boobs were something that others might want to admire. And I did often notice men try to sit down next to other men (and in those days no one thought anything about that, but of course times have changed on that issue too).

So are we to assume that all those religious and saintly men and women were wrong and repeated their sins year in and year out for tens of years and only now the truth has emerged and purity can only be achieved by segregation?

One of the delights of living in Meah Shearim was being able to read the almost daily anonymous wall posters, pashkevilin, that would appear, complaining about anything from Zionism to nudity (or one rebbe excoriating another as a low-life heretic). They would always start off with the same formula, "Woe to the ears who have heard it and tingle the eyes who have seen it and weep", and go on to declare that, say, a brand of apple was known to be infested by Zionist bugs or some such catastrophe.

But things are getting worse, not better. Where is evolution? Why are we becoming so incredibly petty and small-minded? Why do we see danger in every new invention? Why after tens of years of eating the Israeli junk food, Bamba, are we suddenly caught up in a war between rabbis who argue as to whether one should bless this way over it or that?

Why? It is simply because if our Muslim brothers are going madder and more extreme, we cannot be left behind. And believe me dear reader it might be buses today but it will be chadors and burkas tomorrow. Actually, I believe burkas have already arrived in parts of Beth Shemesh and Safed. And the more the secular world uncovers, the more we need to wrap our cloaks around us tighter and tighter. See that's what happens--you start with Tammuz and you end up with naked elbows. The descendants of the very good Jews who were seduced by the Midianites into sexual depravity dare not see a woman for fear they will not be able to control themselves.

Modesty is terribly important, as a mental and physical state, all the more so as much of secular society believes everyone should have every pubic hair on the human body shoved in one's face and rolls of naked flesh are beautiful and should be flaunted. I approve of halachic limitations on how much you show in public. The imagination is almost always more attractive than the reality. I do not believe in "doing it in the road" or "letting it all hang out". But neither do I believe in the ostrich mentality that seeks to lock women up behind closed doors because men don’t know how to control themselves. Ah, that feels better. Now back to mourning.

June 18, 2009

Italy

I love Italy. From Garibaldi to Mussolini to Berlusconi, its leaders have been puffed-up, plausible, self-important operatic heroes and womanizers, all song and show and little substance. Or else shady villains like Andreotti, in league with the Mafia, the Camorra, or the Ndraghetta, doing whatever it took to advance their private agenda. Italy is by most objective standards a disaster. By rights, it ought to be a failed state. No one pays taxes or obeys the law. Yet it seems to thrive economically. Its academic institutions are third rate, overcrowded, and incompetent, yet it produces great academics, writers, artists, and designers. Its judiciary is corrupt and its prosecutors usually end up assassinated and yet somehow there are those honest and idealistic few who simply persevere. It is riddled with clerics but then so it is with Marxists and Anarchists. And its bureaucracy makes Israel look positively competent.

Italy is heaven (after God has gone on vacation). Think of its sun, history, countryside, beaches, art, music, food and wine, Puccini, Rossini, and Verdi. There is a passion, a joi de vivre about Italy that you will not find in any other Mediterranean or European country.

Not only, but Italy under Berlusconi is probably the European state most positively inclined towards the Jews. Yes I know there a darker side but Italy was the first to step up to the plate and refuse to go along with the racist farce that the UN Committee of Human Rights put on in Geneva. At first I thought it was just Berlusconi liking to stick his third finger up at the world whenever he can. But I have just read a book Between Mussolini and Hitler by Daniel Carpi that shows that Italians (rather than Italy) played a very significant role in thwarting Nazi designs on their Jews.

It is not that Italians loved Jews particularly. After all the record of Papal anti-Semitism is not pleasant. The abduction of Edgar Mortara in the nineteenth century showed Catholic authority at its most venal. But to be fair the subsequent outcry in Italy was instrumental in creating a new secular state. No, Italian attitude towards Jews is based more on the fact that they were and are bloody-minded. When, in World War II, a more powerful ally tried to bully them into getting rid of their Jews, they found ingenious and typically Italian ways of responding obstructively while appearing polite, cooperative, and incompetent.

Of course, Mussolini was Hitler's ally. Although he declared in an article printed in the New York Times on 25 June 1936, "Jews have had, presently have, and will continue to have the same treatment as any other Italian citizen, and there is no place in my mind for any form of racial or religious discrimination," in typical Mussolini fashion he introduced anti-Jewish legislation in 1938. Some said he did so only to please his German allies, and it is true enforcement was notoriously Italian, lax, inconsistent, and halfhearted.

The Italians certainly suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the Germans. So that although they were allies, the Italians did not always do what the Germans required of them. This was so in the Balkans and particularly in Vichy France. In general the French were even more enthusiastic than the Germans in hunting down Jews and packing them off to their deaths.

The Italians had occupied a sector of France adjoining their territory. At first the French tried to put pressure on the Italians to hand over their Jews. That didn't work. Then the Italians started to pressurize the French, in turn, to release Jews to their sector. At the same time they had to contend with pressure from the Germans to get tougher with their own Jews. And this is where the Italians did brilliantly in a series of maneuvers that stymied the Nazis. Of course in the end Mussolini was deposed. The Nazis marched in and took over northern Italy to stop the Allied advance; they were responsible for those Italian Jews who died in the Holocaust. But before that happened, the Italians took steps that were amazing, amusing, and typical.

They knew beyond doubt what the Germans were up to (of course, so did everyone else but they could not have cared less). "The German authorities do not conceal the aim they have set themselves. They confirm their willingness to exterminate the Jewish race completely and they justify this total extermination as humanitarian action because it would restore the European peoples to health," wrote Dino Alfieri, the Italian Ambassador in Berlin to Rome in 1942.

So to keep their ally happy, the Italians reiterated their agreement with Nazi policy while instructing the army to protect Jews and indeed move them into the remote Alps out of the reach of the French and the Germans. When the Nazis realized this, the Italian government apologized and instructed the army to hand over responsibility for dealing with Jews to the police. The Nazis were delighted because they thought the Italian police were like the German police, tools of the SS.

Then they discovered the police were protecting the Jews. So the Italians reassured them by setting up the "Department of Race Police". At its head was a man called Lospinoso, who claimed he knew nothing at all about the Jews and the Jewish problem and needed time to study the situation, formulate policies, and then report back to Rome. All the while, he was working with Jewish activists to get Jews out of harm's way. But in the end, the Nazis deposed Mussolini, invaded and took control.

As I read Carpi's book, in between my anger at the French and Germans, I was torn between gratitude and laughter for the seemingly bumbling incompetence of the Italians, their injured pride and need to preserve their dignity and Bella Figura. And I thought thank goodness for them.

That's precisely why I love Italy--in the end, it is life that supersedes all else and to hell with laws and regulations as long as we can have a good time and live well. That, within a spiritual framework of course, is actually what the Torah means when it says, "Laws are there to help us live." Without life what is the point of the law? Salute!

June 14, 2009

D-Day

This year in the run up to D-Day and the Allied invasion of the Nazi Empire of Death in June 1944, several books have appeared that revisit the past. One, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor, has rightly been critically acclaimed. In addition to its documentation of the invasion, amongst other controversial issues, it goes into detail describing the Allied disregard for human life and property as they advanced through Normandy. Not even the justest of wars is without its abuses.

Apart from sickos, I have not yet heard it said that the Allies were wrong to destroy the Nazi regime. Even those who excoriate what they see as Allied excesses, such as the bombing of Dresden or of Bomber Command, moral relativity has not yet (though no doubt it will) descended to depravity in declaring that the Allies should have sought a deal that would have reduced casualties but left the Nazis intact. One of the reasons, of course, was the evidence everyone had of the unbelievable barbarity of the Germans and their partners in depravity. This was why the president of the United States visited a concentration camp on his way to commemorate D-Day, precisely to underscore the distinction between wars and just wars.

In Judaism, one of the definitions of a Just War, Milchemet Mitzva, is war of self defence, and this issue comes up indirectly in Beevor's book when discussing the way Nazi soldiers battled on against overwhelming odds against the Allies. Beevor suggests they were brave defenders of their land, battling to the end only to be dealt no quarter by the Russians coming in from the east. But defenders of what? Defenders of death camps? In reality, they fought on because they knew damn well what evils and atrocities they had been committing, and rightly expected no quarter, the cornered beast.

This is one reason why I find so much history of the Second World War so unpleasant to read. It is why I cannot bear the sort of BBC or PBS documentaries that interview old Nazis who sit there proudly and dispassionately talking military tactics and efficiency in dispatching the enemy, when they were the very ones supporting a regime of the greatest inhumanity the world has seen. The German people and the German soldiers knew well enough the nature of the regime they were supporting and willingly supped with the devil and directly benefited from the booty and the loot. So when these barbarians fight "bravely" for their lives and their crazed leader, is this something we should commend or admire?

One of the reasons I believe that Israel is still morally superior to its enemies and detractors is that, for all its faults (and who has none?), its society has produced a massive amount of literature and film that decries the awful waste and degradation of war and the human tragedy that affects victor and vanquished alike.

Not a Cannes Festival goes by nowadays without at least one film baring the Israeli pacifist soul, and a healthy thing it is too. Arab society bans such offerings. Similarly, I see a moral difference, without excuse, between crimes committed during the heat of battle and the slow, calculated, vile torture, evisceration and mutilation of bodies afterwards in which Israel's enemies specialize, from Lebanon, Gaza, and Ramallah to Mumbai (one reason why in the War of Israeli independence the wounded often dispatched themselves rather than fall into Arab hands).

But where were the films and literature produced in cultured and literate Germany while they were destroying Jewish children? And if the answer is negative because they were frightened of the regime, then tell me why they fought to the bitter end to defend it?

I doubt the Allies fought a moral war. It was one of survival. No country in continental Europe, except Denmark, behaved in a civilized manner. The French were even more determined to get rid of Jews than the Germans, though they were delighted to let them do the dirty work. Had not the Americans joined the British in fighting the Germans, I would not be alive today. That is why I celebrate the victory and regard the outcome of the war as a miracle that defied logic and nature. Yet a younger generation of Europeans who have no inkling of history fail to understand why Israel so doggedly fights for its survival and independence.

I used to think conflicts were between two rights. And I certainly accept the rights of all peoples to self-determination. But I still believe that one can and one needs to see moral disparity where it exists. WWII was not just a military contest between two professional armies. It was a battle between free societies and one that was absolute evil. And that is why for as long as supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas are determined never, ever to recognize a Jewish presence and employ the crudest of anti-Semitism in their armory, Israel must not lay down its arms. Peace must be pursued regardless, but moral values must be seen to win. Capitulation to a primitive mindset in the misguided hope that this will lead to peace would be the same error that Chamberlain made in 1939.

There was a neurotic outcry from some rejectionists in Israel that Obama made a comparison of equivalence between the Palestinians and the Holocaust. But actually he neither said nor implied anything of the sort. On the contrary, he was saying that opposing the Nazis was an unconditional mandate for civilized mankind. But supporting the Palestinian cause is a moral issue that, while it must be addressed, still requires reciprocity. Otherwise, the lessons of World War II will be forgotten as avoiding conflict becomes the only good.

June 05, 2009

Dogma

Dogma: system of doctrines proclaimed by religious authorities to be true. Religion is indeed dogmatic. But politics is worse, with less excuse (and when it is not dogmatic it is corrupt).

Obama is the new Super Hero. Rave reviews of his Cairo speech. Though did you notice glum silence when he spoke about anti-Semitism or rights for Jews or recognizing Israel but applause for everything else? We hear what we want to and we block out what we don't. That's human nature.

Words are fine. What about actions? People forget that Obama rose up through the ranks of the Democratic Party of the United States and, as I predicted, is more or less enslaved to it. The Democratic Party, not unlike the old British Labor Party of Hugh Gaitskell and Michael Foot, is wedded to ideological positions that not only make no sense but are often damaging.

The Democrats are opposed in principle to school vouchers. They like to claim they are in favor of giving people choice, and so they are on issues such as abortion. But when choice conflicts with doctrine they suddenly become dogmatic and prescriptive. The school voucher system, where State schools are manifestly failing, would give parents funds--less than the cost of educating a child in the state system, but enough to pay for a better private education. All the evidence shows that disadvantaged children do better academically this way than if they stay in poor state schools.

But powerful teachers unions, who contribute massively to Democrat funds and have their lackeys in significant positions in the party, refuse to countenance the idea because they are dogmatically wedded to state schools no matter how awful they are. The teachers unions have been in the forefront of preventing schools from sacking poor teachers, removing failing principals, or paying more to teachers who work harder and achieve superior results.

They remind me of everything regressive and destructive in UK Trades Unionism that Margaret Thatcher almost succeeded in sweeping away entirely. The only remnants are the same teachers unions in the UK who, with their political pawns, are responsible for the pathetic state of English public education today. Heaven forefend free enterprise should be allowed to do it better if it can (otherwise, if it fails, it closes and that's an end to it). Obama is supposedly in favor of choice. So why has he thrown his weight behind this decision of the Democratic congress to withdraw vouchers in Washington from children who have been shown to have done better when they were given choice?

True the voucher system was supported by Bush and the Republicans so that it itself is sufficient grounds to condemn it in the eyes of his opponents, regardless of whether it works or not. What is more, many private schools are religious schools. So here too is an offense against Democratic Nostra that must be punished.

The cost of private education in the USA is astronomical, particularly for those of us brought up on state subsidized schooling in the UK. A child in a Jewish school in New York costs its parents around $30,000 a year. And you pay that after having paid close to 50% of your income in taxes in some States. If you had four children you would need to earn $240,000 a year just to pay for education alone. So it is hardly surprising that Orthodox Jews and Catholics, wedded to the values of religious education, and with large families, campaign for vouchers, whereas others line up with those who oppose anything that smacks of state support for religion.

Still the main issue is dogma. I have lived through the destruction of the English education system by socialist dogma. Selective grammar schools that gave poor, able children the chance to rise to the top were scrapped. Secondary modern schools that provided sound, basic vocational training and skills for industry were scrapped. It is true that there were strong social arguments against selective education, streaming children at 11 in ways that greatly influenced their futures. But, with a few notable exceptions, the "comprehensive schools" that replaced them met the needs of neither group.

Throwing everyone together, able with remedial, motivated with antisocial, refusing to remove disruptive elements, led to the values-less, education-less chaos that characterizes most of the state system in the UK today. It was precisely this that led to the explosion in Jewish schools that offered some semblance of discipline, cohesion, and pro-educational motivation. My father attended a simple state school nearly a hundred years ago that served him brilliantly and inspired him. That was why the vast majority of Anglo-Jewish parents were content to send their children to non-Jewish schools. Until dogma ruined them.

For all the billions that have been poured into state education, the results in the Western World are very disappointing. Graduates of the old Russian system, which was selective and authoritarian, have enriched the countries that have absorbed them since the collapse of the USSR, notably Israel and the USA. Both of which had state systems that once were envied and now are derided.

This doctrinaire approach to education, instead of an open-market innovative approach, is the result not only of vested interests but of a quasi religious fundamentalist belief that defies logic and experience. I am not saying Saint Obama is a bad President; on the contrary. But I am saying that he, a politician, is as hampered by dogma as any ecclesiastic.

And what is true of home affairs is also true of foreign affairs. By all means talk the talk. That is what I have been arguing Israel needs to do, for ages. But only invest in what actually works. Wishing is not enough. Until the USA gets involved with actions, not words, putting peace keepers on the ground, not wishing leopards change spots, wishing a hostile world to like him more will achieve nothing more than feel good.

I have no truck with those who build outposts in the West Bank for provocative or messianic reasons. I cannot trust a state system that forbids illegal settlements with one voice and encourages with another. But equally, I have no truck for appeasement and the craven desire to be loved. Push Israel towards peace indeed, but Obama still needs to read Machiavelli. And that goes for schools and states.