June 24, 2010

Secular vs Religious

If the recent ultra-Orthodox Charedi spat in Israel was simply about racism, I would not feel as furious as I do. Last week one hundred thousand black- and fur-hatted faithful gathered in Jerusalem to protest the Israeli High Court decision to send to jail parents of a strictly Orthodox school in the religious town of Emmanuel.

The school was founded by the Slonim Hassidim who wanted state funding but needed sixty pupils to qualify. It only had forty girls, whose parents insisted on a very strict regime. To get the rest they had to lower their standards to allow other girls, not so religious, to join. But these girls were kept segregated behind a wall in the school, for fear that their corrosive values--like sleeves only down to the elbows and pop socks in summer instead of full tights--might ruin the best!

But it was claimed that the wall was to keep Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls apart, and the High Court ordered the responsible parents to remove the offending wall. The Rebbe of Slonim, however, told them to defy the High Court and listen instead to God (his version, naturally), so the parents have repeatedly defied the High Court decision.

I hate racism with a passion. The fact is that Jewish law is and has always been so absolutely against any form of racism. No one who is a racist can possibly claim to be genuinely Orthodox. (And please do not confuse ideological exclusivity with racism, because anyone can adopt a different ideology if he wants to, but can’t change race.) There are, to my shame, Jews who are racist. It is just like any country that has laws against racial discrimination--you still have the mentally challenged who have just not yet evolved.

Go into almost any Charedi community or yeshiva nowadays and you will find a racial mix--blacks, browns, Ethiopians, or Sephardi Jews (mainly from Islamic societies), amongst the faithful. Indeed, in this particular school there were Sephardi girls, and several of the parents amongst those who defied the court and went to jail were Sephardi. So the issue cannot simply be about racism.

It is true that the Sephardic community in Israel has long complained of discrimination. Poor immigrants from the Maghreb and Yemen were treated very shabbily by the Ashkenazi elite when they arrived. It was largely Menachem Begin who first helped turn the tide. Then the creation of the Sephardi religious party "Shas" gave Sephardim real political power and clout. Things have been changing. Some of my own nieces and nephews have happily intermarried into Sephardi communities.

But if this really was a Sephardi issue why did the Sephardi "Shas" party stay shtum? It did not organize one counterdemonstration. One might argue that most Sephardi rabbis don't want to be seen challenging religious authority because they use it just as much, themselves, as a tool of control. And if they do anything to undermine ecclesiastical omnipotence, they will lose too.

So was this just about religion? Did the High Court get it wrong? Was it just trying to find an excuse to beat up on the religious because they don't join the army and rely on secular taxes for handouts? Wasn't this just about some parents wanting a stricter form of Judaism than others and not wanting to be diluted? Cannot religious groups vie with each other over who is stricter if that is what they fancy, so long it doesn't make demands on the less religious?

Most civilized societies allow religious groups to do as they please so long as they don't harm others or break the law. Plenty of Orthodox schools around the world have their own entrance requirements. If you have a television you can't get in, a tattoo you are out. If you belong to another Chasidic sect and you might not worship the same rebbe, don't even try to apply.

One might even legitimately argue that a thorough Talmudic education is far more intellectually rigorous and demanding than Western school standards, but that is another issue. If Orthodox schools want to allow kids to grow double pipicks or wear tents, it is their right to choose--as it is to wear fur hats in the middle of summer and not use deodorant. They believe that God, as mediated by the Great Rabbis of the Generation, know what is right and best. They prefer to follow them rather than the mainly secular civil judges who have entirely different values.

That is their right, so long as they do not expect the state to underwrite their values. Let them simply run their own affairs and not expect the state to subsidize them. If they ask the state to support them, then they surely have to abide by the rules of the state or get out.

But in Israel political haggling allows a situation where Orthodox schools get state funding and can tell the state to mind its own business altogether. No standards, no curriculum, no inspection. Nothing. So they have got used to ignoring the outside world. And this is really all about state cash.

It is called entitlement, a kind of addiction to handouts, usually a result of overindulgent welfare. Some people believe they can ignore the law because what they do is for God or Allah or whatever. They put up schools illegally, fiddle social services, apply for fraudulent subsidies, and indulge in illegal business activities. In Israel they refuse to serve in the army. They rely on the secular and nationalist Orthodox to defend them, then have the gall to expect subsidy. And I blame Ben Gurion, and indeed Begin. They both could have changed the electoral system to stop this blackmail, but did not. Those who sow the wind, etc.

Netanyahu needs the religious to stay in power, so he will make sure they get what they ask for and too bad for the Supreme Court. Whenever there's a cause that is trumpeted as a holy one, you can bet your bottom dollar it is really all about the cash.

June 17, 2010


I have been dealing too much with politics of late. So to redress the balance I am going to deal with love. Of course it’s a massive subject and far too complex to deal in one brief session. So be patient, please. More will follow. So here's the first step, focusing mainly on the origins of love in Judaism.

I cannot think of a more misused word than "love". The same word, Ahavah, is used in Biblical language to talk about loving one's neighbor, one's father and mother, one's children, one's master, one's friend, one's God, and of course one's spouse (in the case of King Solomon, hundreds of women). The Greeks distinguished between mental love, Platonic, and physical. Biblical Judaism did not. "Ahavah" derives from the root "Hav" which means "to bring" or "to give". Judaism simply spoke about a relationship in which one gives, brings something; one has obligations, rather than the modern idea of "what can I get out of it?"

The first human relationship in the Bible, of course, was that of Adam and Eve. They knew how to reproduce. Eve could not have been too worried about her husband straying. Adam was delighted to have found a companion, someone closer to him than the animals. In saying, "And that is why a man leaves his parents and stays closer to his wife", the Torah suggested a very intimate kind of relationship that would transcend (without necessarily replacing) that which one had with one's parents. The ribcage protects the heart, which symbolized love, as it still does today. Creating Eve out of the rib was another way of asserting the emotional link between the two, to supplement the physical. The word "love" is not used, but the symbolism is clear.

Abraham and Sarah appeared to have had an incredibly close relationship in which both of them tried to understand, if not anticipate, the needs of the other. The word "love" is not mentioned there. But according to the Midrash it was with Hagar, under the name of Keturah, that there was passion. It suggests she was so deeply in love with Avraham that she kept herself exclusively for him and waited until Sarah died in order to marry him. For the rabbis to have even thought of such a possibility means they were not only aware of romantic love, but actually admired it.

Throughout the Bible the actual word for marriage is not at all romantic. It is the transactional--"to take", to take as or for a wife. And the arrangement involved such issues as dowry and financial inducements. The idea of getting married for the first time without parental involvement would have struck them as inconceivable. Nevertheless, Biblical law insisted on the husband's having obligations to his wife; that was its way of talking about her rights. And yet it would be wrong think of marriage simply as a transaction. Love played a very important part.

There is no explicit reference to love in marriage until Rebecca. But look at the sequence of words. "And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took her to be his wife and he loved her." It seems pretty clear that marriage as an arrangement came first and love came later. Contrast that, though, with Jacob. He fell in love with Rachel after just seeing her at the well. So there is a biblical precedent for that beautiful if rare madness of "love at first sight".

A very different example the Bible gives of love is the case of Shechem who first raped Dinah and then fell in love with her. How different that was from the other Biblical example of rape. Hundreds of years later Amnon, the son of King David, seemingly fell in love with his half-sister, Tamar. But he got her alone and raped her, and afterward all he felt was revulsion. Young hot love it seems comes in different forms.

The classical example of love in the Talmud is Rabbi Akivah, the poor and ignorant shepherd who falls in love with the daughter of one of the richest men in Judeah, Kalba Savua. And she indeed falls in love with him. The father is so angry he cuts his daughter off and they live in abject poverty until Akivah, after years of study, proves himself to be one of the greatest minds of those Jewish times.

The word "love" is not actually used in the text that tells the story, but Rabbi Akivah remarkably describes the "Song of Songs" as the holiest book of the Bible because its outward romantic language of passionate love is, he claimed, an analogy for the love humans should aspire to of God. How different to the Greek intellectual predilection for conceptualizing God and turning to proof rather than experience for validation. But doesn't it seem appropriate? That a man so overpowered by love for a woman should seek to transpose that passion onto the relationship with God? What does it say both about his attitude to human love and to the Divine? It worries me because if folie d'amour is used in religion, I fear it leads to abuse.

But do love and marriage necessarily go together? In ancient times and later, getting married involved a process of betrothal. Betrothal was a "right" of a parent that technically required the daughter's agreement at attaining majority--given the historical and social context, refusal must have been as rare as it was in non-Jewish societies. Certainly amongst the aristocracy, noblesse oblige required sons and daughters to marry to further the dynastic social and financial obligations of the family.

The popular Talmudic recommendation is that "one should love one's wife as much as one loves oneself and honor her even more." The combination of these two words, "love" and "honor" are the foundation of Jewish marriage, just as they are of one's relationship with one's parents, where identical words are used. Yet clearly the two are of a different order. After all, one cannot divorce one's parents, whereas halacha allows for divorcing a wife, if only to stop people hating each other.

Still the modern notion of romantic love determining one's marriage partner is clearly one that, although it might have always existed, has only become more the norm in recent times. However, just as a marriage based on love may end up loveless, there is just as much a chance as that a marriage initiated by shared interests and obligations might result in love. And love can hurt ... but that is for another time.

June 10, 2010


Helen Thomas is an ancient journalist, employed by Hearst Newspapers in the USA. She has been White House correspondent for decades, incidentally, though not surprisingly given her ancestry, an opponent of Israel. She should have been pensioned off years ago, but her survival is due to the fact that she is such a character that she is indulged. Her outburst now on YouTube, that the Jews get the hell out of Palestine and go back to Poland and Germany where they came from, illustrates her ignorance as well as her prejudice. Most Jews in Israel today originated in the Middle East and have never been anywhere else. There is no fool like an old fool and her own words have betrayed her. The ensuing furor has forced her to resign at last.

Normally one would swat the flea and laugh it off. However as Goebbels famously said, big lies when told often enough are believed, and the anti-Semitic anti-Israel websites are abuzz with approval of her comments.

My initial response was to say that it’s a fair point, if she also agrees that all USA citizens return to their countries of origin and leave the continent to its indigenous population. Or that the Normans and their descendants in England go back to France. Let us indeed clear every person out of the Holy Land and then set up a universally recognized independent body (itself an impossibility nowadays) to take genetic, textual, historical, archaeological, and cultural evidence to show who has the longest and best claim going as far back as records of any kind exist. I am all the more confident now that the BBC reports that genetic evidence links most Jews to the Middle East. And since the majority of Israeli citizens came from Muslim lands, and of course anyone asked to move will also be financially compensated with compound interest.

To swing in a different direction, I regret that Geert Wilders has won such a significant number of votes in the Netherlands. But that is precisely because he is prepared to say unpalatable things about fanatical parts of Islam that manifest themselves today all over the place. And it precisely because other politicians are not willing to face reality that they lose credibility and right-wingers like him succeed.

He is wrong to think all Muslims take the text of the Koran literally. We also have texts of the Bible that need to be seen in context and have been reinterpreted subsequently. Every single religion I know of claims to be peaceful and only concerned with bringing God and love to the world. And every religion contains narrow-minded fanatics who believe that only they have the exclusive truth and intend to apply it to everyone else one way or another. And every religion in history that gets power ends up abusing it in horrible ways.

Every religion, when it starts up, has to prove itself against an earlier one and so systematically tries to discredit its predecessors, destroy them either physically or ideologically. That is the strength and the weakness of religion and I am delighted that in the West now we have restricted the role of religion and limited its excesses.

I am also pleased that Britain's Home Secretary has announced she will require foreign spouses of British citizens to learn English before arriving. This will help the process of integration, something no British government has dared to consider hitherto. It won't change things overnight. The USA requires integration, but it has its home-grown fanatics too. The last thing we need now is a Trojan horse of religious fundamentalism. Actually the horse is already inside the gates.

In theory, Islam is as good a religion for the mass market as any other. It is much closer to Judaism than Christianity. I believe in choice. But I also believe in freedom and in honesty. Of course we know not all Muslims are Jihadis. Of course we know all Jews are not settlers or supporters of Kahane. But it is as much a lie to pretend Islam has no problem with increasing Jihadism as it would be to deny that sectors of Judaism have been taken over by extremists of one sort or another. That's the nature of the world we live in. It is the delusions of apologists that worry me. We Jews have to combat our extremists, and Muslims need to combat theirs and not pretend there aren’t any.

In the world of PR, my product is better than yours. Yours stinks; mine works. Religion ought to be above PR lies. But tolerance demands that each religion must accept responsibility for its own problems. Unless all religions can recognize and identify their own lunatics and act to isolate them, unless moderates of all religions work together to stop everyone's fanatics, we will all be consumed.

We should strengthen the hands of those who genuinely want to work for cooperation and understanding. We cannot resolve all political issues. Of course most Muslims support Muslims, and most Jews support Jews, and most Christians support Christians and the vast majority want to live in peace. Just as most Englishmen optimistically will support England in the World Cup (I'm rooting for the USA because I think they have a better chance)! Christians, Muslims, and Jews are each internally divided. We cannot ask for unanimity, but we can expect realism and honesty.

June 03, 2010

Another Kind of War

I know I shouldn't tar everyone with the same brush, but I have to say the Israelis seem to shoot themselves in the foot so many times that I'm surprised they still have any feet left. It really worries me. I know there's nothing we Jews can get right but still do we really have to hand it to them?

OK, so I can understand a not very sophisticated or educated ultra-Orthodox minister of the interior, who only got a senior appointment because of haggling and coalition bargaining, puts his foot in it and embarrasses his prime minister by announcing more building on the very day the American special negotiator, Senator George Mitchell, comes to town. After all, he is not just a politician (and we know that almost all politicians are either crooked or stupid), he is a rabbi too. So what do you expect?

OK. I can understand the Israeli police force mishandling the Sheikh Jarrah protestors. Everyone knows the Israeli police are both infiltrated by criminal contacts and dumb. That is why they always go around in twos--one to write and the other to read.

OK, I can understand that you bring a walking disaster like Avigdor Lieberman into office. He has been your protégée and knows all your dirty secrets. You owe him. But why then put Lieberman, a man with fewer diplomatic skills than Mike Tyson (and not much more attractive), in the most sensitive public relations area, the Foreign Ministry? Even if you do give him by far the best and most articulate spokesman you could wish for, Mark Regev (you then make sure he only gets limited exposure and you let incompetents make matters worse, because you owe other friends other favors).

OK, I can understand you give Barak the Defense Ministry. He is an ex-general, a highly cultured, and by now a very wealthy, politician who nominally stands for the old left-wing aristocracy. He is supposed to be in charge of the army that cannot even dislodge one illegal settlement. He cannot rein in settlers running amok and shooting up villages. He was the one responsible for that stupid botched handling of the flotilla. For goodness sakes you either have lousy intelligence or you deserve to be fired for sending unprepared soldiers abseiling down into a cesspit of 'peaceful' of course, murderous jihadis. It obviously didn’t occur to him to disable the propellers or the engine and let it drift for some other humanitarian boat to come to its rescue.

Yes, we know this was a cleverly planned trap laid by experienced agitators to maximize PR and further isolate Israel. We know legitimate aid gets into Gaza from Israel, and cars and trucks come in via tunnels from Egypt. Gaza gets more aid than most decaying rustbelt towns in the US, and the United Nations has just opened an Olympic-sized swimming pool for them. We know the world won't cry over the 94 Ahmadiyya massacred in Pakistan last week or call for a boycott. And yes, we know Turkey needs to cover up its own massacres of Armenians and Kurds. Anyone notice how many Kurds were killed last week? And Erdogan, himself? Why is everyone saying Israel is losing a friend? He was never a friend. Remember how he insulted Peres at Davos? No, it was the secular generals who got on with Israel, and now Erdogan the Muslim anti-secularist is putting them all in jail.

And is a blockade against Gaza getting you anywhere? What is the point? Look at the US. It has equally stupidly been blockading Cuba for a generation and got nowhere. For goodness sakes, stop it. Shut down the Israel side of the border altogether. After all Hamas wants the end of Israel why help it altogether? Let it direct its hatred south. Yes I know arms will come in the way they are flowing into Lebanon. And they will be fired at Israel and Hamas doesn’t give a damn how many expendable women and children are killed in return. We know if Israel retaliates it will be blamed. But better be blamed and get rid of your enemy than getting blamed and NOT getting rid of them. It is clear that getting rid of Israel is the agenda and of a lot of Jews too of all smells.
OK, so it is Netanyahu's fault for being so desperate for power he preferred to get into bed with the religious, the right-wing, and the Russians instead of a presentable, reasonable, intelligent moderate like Tzipi Livni. So yes, we know Netanyahu flatters to deceive--and if he sounds articulate, the fact is he is not very bright. He was not a success last time and he is not now. If only the silver lining was that he'd really give peace a chance but it is clear that’s beyond him.

Why even Olmert at least had the common sense to allow an earlier dumb flotilla through to Gaza. For goodness sake, let 'rent mobs' have their demonstrations. They know they can't get near China or Russia, who bomb the hell out of their troublesome minorities or Iran who torture them to death. They know if they try going through Egypt they'll end up in jail. Israel is a soft target precisely because it is not as bad as everyone says it is. You never saw any placards amongst the demonstrators saying 'Muslims kill Muslims,' more than anyone else.

OK, I know I am going to be embarrassed week after week by incompetent Israeli politicians. But I had hoped the much vaunted Israeli military top brass were at least up to scratch. So even if Israel continues to bury itself further into the PR pit that its enemies are digging daily for it, at least we could count on them to save ourselves from ourselves.

But they did not cover themselves in glory in Lebanon against the braggadocio Hezbollah guerillas. They did not do a much better job in Gaza. Now they bloody well can't even handle a civilian ferry on the high seas. And these are the people we expect to defend a Jewish state from the hoards of primitive fanatics, an Iranian nuclear bomb, and the political failures.

How on earth anti-Semites can think we control and manipulate the world, when we can't even run one of the smallest states on the planet, Lord only knows. But then hatred knows no logic. And how they can think we control Washington when we can't even take control of a Turkish ferry without a massive cock-up. It just beggars belief. The Great American Government can't even handle a hole in the Gulf of Mexico. I only hope and pray God is still watching.