August 27, 2009

Americarabia

We are used to the exaggerated, scare term "Eurabia", to describe the capitulation of European culture and politics to Islam. As is often attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." So you can imagine how grave the danger is when apparently intelligent, open-minded academics go a stage further and actually censor publications. Appeasement and highbrow anti-Semitism have always been a European disease. But the disease has now spread to the USA. The USA and Europe are very different in so many ways, so the way a virus translates into a disease will certainly differ. But one could equally use the term "Americarabia", a danger as long as the US is dependent on Arab oil and Saudi goodwill.

Of course, I welcome any attempt to bridge gaps and overcome antipathies. I support Obama's desire to communicate. I understand the steps he takes to try to burnish his credentials as an honest broker in the Middle East, and I am not as neurotically negative as much of American and Israeli Orthodoxy are about him. But there is a huge gap between ensuring no Muslim is disadvantaged or discriminated against simply because of his or her faith, and capitulating to primitive irrational demands merely to curry favour. Just as there is a huge difference between tarring all Islam with a terrorist brush and standing up to those who insist on continuing to use it as a tool of realpolitik.

Look at the absolutely disgraceful way Libya has publicly welcomed back a mass murderer! What is it about so much of Islam that lusts after death and murder? Is this what we should be appeasing rather than condemning? And if the bomber was only a sacrifice for the State, how do we feel about a state that glorifies bombing a civilian plane? Those Jewish extremists who blew up the King David hotel were never glorified by Israel or publicly acclaimed. Neither were Americans who accidentally caused collateral civilian damage or misread coordinates.

Yale University has decided to censor a book about the Danish cartoon affair of 2005 for fear of Islamic fanatics. And then tries to justify itself. The full statement refers, in self-defense, to the number of papers in Britain and the USA who declined to publish the cartoons originally. Sadly, this is not the first example of craven capitulation to fear. Sherry Jones, an author whose novel, The Jewel of Medina, was shelved by Random House because of fears of violent reprisals, said, "I decided to take a stand for free speech and publish my books in spite of threats and violence because I wanted to make a positive difference in the world...Yale University Press's decision, like that of the executives at Random House, does the opposite...Self-censorship changes our world for the worse."

I wonder has Yale censored books about abortion because an anti-abortion fanatics have killed doctors? Or did it censor books on politics because Americans have been assassinated by political opponents?

And here's another straw in the wind. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was recently awarded to Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu, amongst others. They are both seriously flawed icons of the left. Flawed not just for their bitter opposition to Israel but for the language of contempt, insensitivity, and antipathy they use towards Israel and Jews which (as with the case of Jimmy Carter) is used by others to delegitimize--the result of which was the infamous Durban anti-Semitic hate-fest over which Mary Robinson presided and which Desmond Tutu encouraged.

Of course, any Democrat government in the US is inevitably going to counteract its Republican predecessor in any way it can, whether it is in appointing Supreme Court judges who think the way it does or honoring those whose values it identifies with. Certainly both Tutu and Robinson have been champions of a left-wing radical agenda, so their being honored was unsurprising. It is all part of the swings and roundabouts, checks and balances that all democratic countries experience.

In Britain, the likeable leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has often said he opposes the sort of mindless tirades the sad Baroness Tonge spews out against Israel. But if he continues to allow her to remain part of his party as he does, the virus will spread. Sweden too is diseased. Not only can a left-wing newspaper reinvent the Blood Libel by claiming, with no facts, that the Israeli Army harvests organs from Palestinians, but the government springs to its defense on the grounds of free speech. Sadly, politics is concerned with power, not truth, and there are more Muslim than Jewish voters.

What worries me is when we tolerate the incursion of hate under any guise. Consider the apparently idealist and egalitarian socialist regime, the USSR, supported by so many Jews, which ended up being so anti-Semitic. This happens when anyone is demonized and "good" people do not oppose it. This is what has happened throughout the Muslim world, where opponents of autocrats are demonized. To a far lesser extent, it happens in religions where denigration and delegitimization become the favored tools of discourse (where there is any discourse).

It is not for me to champion civilized Islam. The record of its achievements will outlast the current barbaric desire to return to the cave. But I believe we in the West owe it to Islam not only to ensure there is no discrimination in our midst, but also to ensure that moderate Islam is not silenced. Every time we give in to Mad Mulla pressure we undermine the moderates. And every time people in the West bang on about the Israel/Jewish lobby yet ignore the Arab/Islam lobbies, then we will indeed allow a creeping takeover of liberty that will start with protecting fanatical Islam and end up censoring anyone who opposes religious or political extremism.

August 20, 2009

Usury

The Torah is very definite in its condemnation of lending money for interest:

Exodus 22:24 - If you ever lend money to anyone amongst the poor of My People (says God) do not become an oppressor by lending for interest.

Leviticus 25:36 - Do not take interest (from someone fallen on hard times). Do not take interest or apply oppressive terms, but respect (the will of) God and allow your brother to live with you (in dignity)…for I am the YHVH your God who took you out of Egypt.

And, finally, Deuteronomy 23:20 - Do not oppress your brother through money or charging interest on food or anything else or any other way of oppressing him financially.

In Judaism, lending money to start or sustain a business has been regarded as the highest expression of charity, giving someone in one's community the opportunity to be self-sufficient with dignity. To take advantage of someone else's misfortune to enrich oneself was regarded as immoral. This was not a matter of being anti-capitalist; a person could make as much profit as he could. But it was to highlight the difference between commercial gain and social responsibility, and to insist that commercial activity that took advantage of poverty was unacceptable. It was not that charging interest was wrong in itself. After all, you could charge interest to those beyond your community. But it was an assertion of the need to make credit available to the poor of your society (not exclusively, but as a priority), to help them establish themselves without taking on an intolerable burden.

These rules were made in an era that was predominantly agricultural, where barter was the dominant means of exchange, and in which, as today, each society reserves special benefits for its own citizens. Over time, as commerce became more sophisticated and dominant, in trading internationally interest became the norm and Jews participated in order to survive financially (the Christian world having closed off almost every other opportunity to make a living). So a degree of flexibility became necessary.

Only in post-Medieval times did the famous Heter Iska, (Permission to Do Business), the technical contract that found a way around the usury laws, emerge. It is interesting in that it is almost identical in spirit to the way Islamic Banks deal with exactly the same issue. (Christianity ultimately turned a blind eye to the issue.) It is also interesting that only now, as Jews have so many more opportunities to make money than they did, that the use of the Heter Iska has become far more widespread than previously, particularly in Israel.

But the principle remains that there is nothing wrong with lending at interest when it is controlled and where charity is readily accessed, through societies or the individuals. Judaism banned usury only to ensure that money was available to the poor and the poor would not be taken advantage of. That’s why the Bible reiterates the link between not lending for interest and God's presence as a moral deterrent, or our being brought out of a corrupt oppressive regime in Egypt to ensure that we established a caring one.

The sadness of modernity is that it is precisely the poor who pay the most exorbitant rates of interest to loan sharks and criminals, and of course the usurious rates charged by certain types of lenders operating within the law, because they have no other access to money. This is why the new fashion for microlending is an essential element in modern charity.

Anyone familiar with the Orthodox world knows that the "Gemach", Free Loan Society, takes its name from Gemillut Chesed, Kindness, and is the foundation of lending in Orthodox, Charedi social life. Only outside of the Orthodox world is the concept almost unheard of (as indeed is the Chevra Kaddisha, the voluntary society of those who help clean the dead and prepare them for burial), so far removed from our essential values are the majority of Jews nowadays. But the principle that lending for interest has a deleterious side to it and is not the ideal needs to be reiterated particularly at a time when so much in this often dubious financial world of ours is suspect. And anyone who has the moral commitment to highlight the potential evils of usury should be praised and encouraged.

All this has been provoked by the case of Rabbi Natan Asmoucha, the rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue. He is charged by the Mahamad, the lay body of the Spanish and Portuguese community in London, with joining Christian and Muslim clergy in a protest against usury, permitting Bevis Marks to be the meeting place and the staging post for a multi-faith demonstration against usurious practices that targeted a bank in the city. A noble undertaking totally consonant with Jewish values as outlined above. I know and like Rabbi Abraham Levy, the Spiritual Head of the Spanish and Portuguese community in Great Britain. We were at the same school and we share many core values about Judaism and its relation to the outside world. So I cannot believe he is to blame. I do not know Rabbi Asmoucha, but like me, he was the rabbi in Bulawayo (Southern Rhodesia in my time, Zimbabwe in his). So I have an interest.

I don’t know what it is that affects perfectly normal, reasonable, and professional people when they join a synagogue board, but in each and every synagogue I have ever come across, it turns their brains into mush. It seems (for I have only secondhand information) that they wanted to make Rabbi Asmoucha redundant, but to avoid paying compensation, they decided to charge him with impropriety so they could fire him, thus hoping to circumvent the moral law of the land. Initially they wanted to use his association with an Imam as the excuse, but then discovered that the Chief Rabbi of Britain had been on the same platform with him, so they had to backtrack on that one.

You see, money usually lies at the root of most conflicts and that is precisely why the Torah warns us consistently, in these laws I have quoted, against making financial gain the primary concern. It is charity, human sensitivity, and Gemilut Chesed that should be the decisive factor in human affairs, not profit.

August 13, 2009

Circumcision

I am a very squeamish person. I cannot bear to look at blood, or even at TV programs about hospitals when they show some operation. I would be useless in an emergency and would certainly never, ever be able to slaughter animals or be a mohel (theory is one thing, practice altogether another). So when I have to tend a circumcision ceremony I stand as far back as I can. I am the polar opposite of the aficionados or Dracula wannabees who peer in close to take videos of the gory process. Last week I was present at the Brit of my latest grandson and made sure I was well shielded by my son-in-law.

I hate hearing babies cry, too. And even the most efficient, speedy, surgically expert circumcision is heart-wrenching. It is true the baby starts crying simply when his nether parts are exposed to the elements (in this case a typically lukewarm London summer), but the actual cut itself is over in seconds and while we hear his ongoing complaints at the indignity it has suffered, the mohel is simply bandaging up the wound. In a matter of minutes (that feel like an hour) it is over, the mandatory cup of wine is poured and the baby is happily sucking on a wine-drenched finger before it is returned to the primordial sanctuary of his mother's breast. Then, as is the norm in Jewish society, everyone gets down to the food and the drink.

I confess I do have mixed feelings. We have been doing this for thousands of years. It is one of the most significant parts of our ancient tradition. Yet I still feel a twinge, an inexplicable sense that it is all a bit primitive. At the same time, I also feel immense pride, that through thick and thin we as a people have been so loyal to this strange ritual, this act of dedication we impose on our sons. It gives us an immediate and visceral link to all the millions of Jews who have come before us who have, like me, all continued to follow, often at great self-sacrifice, our amazing and profound gift to humanity. A gift that most of humanity tries so hard to ignore, if not repudiate. It is a very moving experience. It is like so much of our religion that defies logic yet works, that appears trivial yet is profound, that strikes one as tribal and yet is also universal.

But why is circumcision so crucial? The only other physical assault on the human body is the Biblical law that imposes a pierced ear on the Hebrew slaves who prefers dependency to freedom. Otherwise the body is regarded with such reverence that even tattoos are forbidden. The bond between a human and God is not surely established by a ceremony and pain that is almost immediately forgotten. And as for noticing it later on, enough circumcised Jews have repudiated their fathers' decision. Surely commitment is in the mind and heart not the penis? Anyway is the ceremony not rather about the father's, the parents', commitment and it is this that is being passed on? And if it is so crucial to being Jewish, why does it not apply to women?

Now here is the point. I have read the endless pathetic and nasty anti-Semitic blogs and pseudo-learned essays about the evils of circumcision. I have read how it denies Jewish men the true pleasures of sex. And frankly I have laughed as I would if someone told me that having your tonsils out prevented you from enjoying food or singing. I have to say that most Jews I know do not complain about that side of the issue. That which people (wrongly) call "female circumcision" does indeed deny sexual pleasure and may be intended to; it is the permanent removal of a vital organ, which is really is excessively barbaric. But actual circumcision, as is done to males, is the removal of a totally redundant piece of skin. Not only, but evidence keeps coming in about the benefits of male circumcision in reducing the incidence of certain diseases in both men and women.

Culturally, of course, there was a time when Greeks and Romans looked down on circumcision and naked athletes of Jewish origin tried all kinds of devices to hide it, as indeed do some men in the US who seem to prefer the proboscidean state. Nowadays, what with Muslims circumcising their boys, the still common Western preferences, and Christianity happy to remind us that Jesus was circumcised on his putative eighth day it seems circumcision is mainstream.

I do often hear the complaint that there is no specific ritual to welcome girls into the covenant. But I am impressed by the mystical explanation that the regenerative blood of the monthly cycle is the female blood of the covenant, even if it is involuntary (and even if all females have it, regardless of religion). It does, after all, make up the symmetry of both reproductive organs uniting in ensuring the tradition continues.

So when all is said and done, I hate the cut and the cry, yet I am moved by context, the power of our religious tradition, the sense of continuity we are ensuring, and the feeling of shared community. As one of the most important texts of the ceremony, borrowed from the prophet and repeated at the Passover table declares, "Out of blood comes life!"

August 06, 2009

Piss Process

Israel has changed dramatically from when I first went there in the 50's. In those early days of healthy Israeli pioneers, when the kibbutz movement was the country's pride and joy and the Mecca of all young European idealists, good manners was seen as the disease of the Old World Order. Every time I would automatically say "Please" or "Thank you", I would be laughed at or told that the Germans were polite and look what they did to people. Or the British Mandate soldiers for that matter, polite gentlemen who thought nothing of kicking you in the teeth, preventing Jewish immigration, and cuddling up to the Arabs. Besides, they would argue, it is plain dishonest. If you do not like someone just say so, none of this polite diplomacy. That was fine for Abba Eban at the United Nations, but what really counted was being tough, self-reliant, and brooking no nonsense.

Besides, Western European Jews had good manners and went to the slaughter like lambs, while only a few Israeli-type fighters held up the Nazis at the Warsaw Ghetto. The Lohamei HaGetaot, the fighters of the Ghetto, were the heroes, and the rest of the Holocaust survivors were regarded almost with suspicion for having survived instead of going to an honorable fighting death.

At the time Israeli machismo sounded like an attractive position. The young lions had won the War of Independence, the Suez Campaign, and would in due course accomplish the decisive Six-Day War. Up until that moment, Israel was overwhelmingly admired. Diaspora Jews who had tended to hide now felt confident enough to come out. But then Israel became an occupying power. It should have learnt from the way the West Bank Arabs welcomed the Israelis in '67 (because they got rid of the hated Hashemite occupiers) that no matter who an occupier is, he is still an occupier.

The changing mood of the world, the power of Arab oil, the insecurities of western democracies, all helped put Israel on the defensive. For years they were warned about the importance of public relations, courting the press, presentation. And for years they responded that Israel didn’t need it; her case spoke for itself and, besides, the world was all a bunch of Islamic fanatics or anti-Semites who wouldn't listen anyway so there was no point in wasting time trying.

True, no one cares for your wellbeing as much as you, yourself. Politics knows no ideals, only interests, power, and money. No one will put his own life in danger to help Israel, and the mantra of post-Holocaust secularism was "Never Again".

But the fact is that one needs allies and support and it is becoming more and more difficult to go it alone. Although, if anyone has shown it can be done, Israel almost has, with its technology and arms industries. Still, we know from recent conflicts that Israel needs supplies from the outside, and America in particular. So presentation and PR are useful tools.

Netanyahu was educated in both traditions, Sabra derring-do and American diplomacy and PR. So why is he such a disaster? Why am I embarrassed by him? He promised something more refined, someone one would be proud of, an articulate diplomat like Eban or Chaim Herzog, a good speaker, a rational mind, the brother of a war hero. But he was awful first time around, both at home and abroad. The Right Wing had no one else of stature. He has been given another chance by political machination rather than electoral victory. So you'd think he'd learn. Even Shimon Peres, despised politician for years, has mellowed into the presidency (if only he would stop talking about the Piss Prrrrocesss).

But no. Netanyahu appoints Lieberman as Foreign Minister to represent Israel abroad, an unappetizing a man of dubious financial probity, with links to all sorts of unsavory people, with a mouth that takes off before his brain clicks in. Could not be worse for Israel's image abroad. Like those Israeli tourists who clean out all the fixtures from the hotels they stay in from Turkey to Machu Picchu. Whatever other faults he had, Olmert at least put on a good show. And what does Lieberman mean by insisting Arabs accept Israel as a Jewish State? Has he considered the difference between a Jewish State and a State for Jews? How does he propose to enforce it, by pulling down people's pants at immigration? Will he expel Karta because they proudly proclaim that they are anti-Zionists who refuse to accept the State of Israel?

It is clear that not only America, but large chunks of the Jewish world do not want to be held hostage by messianic fanatics or thugs. In the end it's clear there will be compromises and adjustments. Boundaries will be redrawn. So why go on playing games? Why provoke odium and newspaper headlines by insisting on a few more new homes when you can gain credit as a reasonable man willing to consider another point of view by simply stopping now?

Why does he always feel that if he concedes on one point he has to be doubly tough on another. I know there is no honesty in politics. I know of the pressures and the bribes and the vested interests. But when Tzipi Livni spoke, for all her faults, people felt more positively, even warmly disposed to Israel, than when blustering Bibi takes the stage. Of course Israel must protect itself. But I want to feel proud when its top people talk, not embarrassed.

Maybe Obama hates Israel (an exaggerated, even neurotic reaction to his trying to compromise), but why shouldn't he try to be perceived as being an honest broker who will pressure both sides in order to achieve a peace settlement that takes each into consideration? Why choose davka THIS moment to drive out Arabs from their homes in Sheikh Jarra, even IF they were there illegally?

Every change of government I hope and pray for a change, for moral clarity. But each time I am disappointed. Another piss process.