July 29, 2010

Reform Meddling

I have so often attacked individuals in the Charedi world for the way they play the system. Now the boot's on the American Reform foot over an attempt to try to resolve the issue of Russian Israelis who are not Jewish, and there are lots of them. A bill before the Knesset would have decentralized conversions in Israel to allow each local rabbinic authority to deal with its specific problems in the ways it sees fit. But as an inevitable quid pro quo, it reasserted the authority of the state rabbinate over such matters.

American Reform lobbies have weighed in. Netanyahu has capitulated. The bill is sabotaged. The Russians are left in the murk. Yet it has done nothing to address the real issue American Reform is worried about. It has simply shown them up to be dogs in the manger.

Their real issue is not conversion. It is that religion and politics have been intertwined since the foundation of the state. Personal religious status is in the hands of the Orthodox (and increasingly intolerant) rabbinate. This affects, primarily, marriage and burial. There is no civil marriage in Israel, for Jew, Christian, or Muslim, though those married civilly abroad are recognized.

I do not like this. I do not subscribe to Reform Judaism and think their decisions have split the Jewish people more than Orthodox revanchism. But I also strongly oppose religious coercion. If Israel would separate "State" from "Religion" there would be no problem at all. As in the Diaspora, Jews would be free to choose whatever brand of religion they want knowing full well that other Jews might not accept their credentials. That’s life. I know if I want Satmar to accept me I’ll have to change the way I dress. I can choose, but in Israel, politics rules. It is a system where you know the Prime minister will give in to Charedi pressure because he wants their votes and to US Reform pressure because he wants their money. I wish secular Israelis had the guts to change their political system and exclude the smaller parties who blackmail in return for votes. But they haven't, they don’t seem to care enough. Don’t only blame the religious. It’s the seculars’ fault too. Israel is a democracy. If that's what they want, there's nothing I can do about that.

Most Israelis come from Sephardi countries where there is no Reform presence. The vast majority of new immigrants to Israel are Orthodox. Your average Israeli is secular and does not keep anything. Nevertheless the Judaism they refer to is a traditional one, even if they don’t like its rabbis. Israel has never recognized Reform Judaism, its rabbis, or its conversions. But this hasn't stopped Diaspora communities from supporting Israel, any more than many secular Jews support Orthodox mystics or Reform Jews support Lubavitch or, indeed, many Christians support Israel.

I am all in favor of choice. I fully understand anyone not wishing to be associated with fundamentalism or a Judaism nostalgic for the Ghetto. But you can't kick a tradition in its teeth and then expect it to accept you. Yet that is precisely what Reform Jews are asking of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel when they demand that they accept Reform conversions or Reform rabbis.

Conversion in Israel is subject to politics only because of history. The Knesset decided, not rabbis, to call anyone with a Jewish grandparent Jewish for the purposes of the Law of Return. That was a political decision. Now it is faced with thousands of Russian Israelis (encouraged to come for demographic reasons) who are not Jewish by any religious standard, yet as citizens may fight and die for Israel (as do many Bedouin and Druze who have never claimed they were Jewish). Many Russians, faced with the reality of the situation, want to rectify their Jewish status and convert. But the only option currently available is through a rigid and centralized rabbinate.

But is conversion a genuine religious process or simply a convenient sham? Some rabbis in Israel, as in the USA, Reform and Orthodox, have tried to resolve these issues by making conversion easy. They make up their own standards and I am sorry to say, often take backhanders. They are perfectly entitled to act as they see fit. But the State Rabbinate cannot be expected to recognize these converts. Why the heck should they? Since when can an applicant for US citizenship tell the US how much of a citizen he is prepared to be?

MK Rothem's bill tried to solve the Israeli problem. It was give and take. He got the rabbinate to agree to be flexible about standards, to allow conversion to be open to all state-employed rabbis with their variations, but in return had its status as the arbiter of Jewish identity confirmed. It is not ideal. But it would have helped the Russians and not changed anything as far as American Reform is concerned. But it has been scuppered because of American Reform meddling. So now no one wins. The Israeli Rabbinate still does not recognize Reform converts, and rabbis and Russian Jews won't get an easier path to conversion. Well done, the Yanks.

It is nonsense to claim the bill would have divided Jewry anymore than it already is. We are split between Zionists and non-Zionists, secular and religious, and Reform and Orthodox. Concern for Israel is an important common denominator. But a united Jewry on any issue is as much a myth as a united Christianity or a united Islam. Can you imagine Sunni accepting Shia authority or vice versa? Still they all support the Palestinians.

Of course the answer is to separate state and religion. Until that happens, by all means Reform should fight to strengthen its presence and values, positively. It should stop pretending that this issue is splitting Jewry any more than it has already. It should pressurize to separate State and Religion, not to impose its own religious values, for that is to play the very game it claims to abhor. Meanwhile leave the Israelis to sort their own problems out in the haphazard way they have always done. Eventually they might get right, politically and religiously!

July 22, 2010

Anthony Julius

Anthony Julius has a reputation as one of the brightest English lawyers of his generation and has a PhD on T.S. Eliot. Recently he was praised for his role in the defense of Deborah Lipstadt against the revolting David Irving. Julius has spent many years studying anti-Semitism in all its varieties. He concludes it has felt like swimming through a sewer.

His book Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England is magisterial. Some of the critical reviews have been predictably nitpicking and Harold Bloom's positive review in the New York Times brought the secular anti-Zionists out in force so it must be good. No Judaica library should be without it.

The disease has proved uniquely persistent, mutating from religion to religion and from nation to nation. It exists even where no Jews are present. What every outbreak has in common is illogicality mixed with paranoia and politics.

There is nothing new in Julius's chapters on English history. England gave the world the Blood Libel. The Crusaders slaughtered Jews as the easily accessible heretics. Jews were blamed for everything from the Black Death to famine and war, just as later they were blamed for being capitalists and Marxists, internationalists and nationalists, too weak and too strong.

In England Jews were used and abused and then expelled in 1290. Yet hatred of Jews persisted even when there were none around. When, under Cromwell, the question of readmitting Jews was discussed, sections of the Anglican Church raised the specter of Jews destroying churches, killing Christian children, banning pork. Merchants argued that the Jews would simply swindle everyone else and put them out of business. Similar charges were made in 1753 when Parliament passed a Jew Bill and King George actually signed it giving Jews equal rights. The uproar was so great the bill was repealed! In anti-Semitism, every one of the medieval calumnies has a modern equivalent.

Julius's specialized contribution is how anti-Semitism is deeply embedded in English literature. From Chaucer to Marlowe, from Shakespeare to Dickens, and on to Eliot, the Jew is invariably depicted as the dangerous, malicious symbol of evil and everything good Christians oppose. All of this makes the exceptions all the more amazing. There are those in the field who think Julius exaggerates anti-Semitism in English literature right up to modernity. But Julius makes a powerful case.

In the most relevant part of this book, he examines current anti-Semitism in England in general, and specifically in the context of anti-Zionism, which is now commonly used as a surrogate. A major factor is Islam which, like Christianity, always had a problem with Jews precisely because they stubbornly persisted with their "old" ways. Perhaps under parts of Islam Jews suffered less at certain times, but the Jew was always regarded as the outsider, the Dhimmi.

One can, of course, understand the modern political antagonism. When two nations fight over the same home there will be a lot of bitterness and violence on both sides. But it is the completely irrational hatred and demonization of the other, regardless, which betrays the disease. Rwanda illustrates how easily "the other" can be dehumanized. Most disturbing because it is inflammatory and has led to violence against Jews around the world is the medieval anti-Semitism that floods the Muslim world underlines how easily human minds can be distorted by manipulators.

The Church remains problematic. Catholicism has tried to eradicate anti-Semitism. But mainstream Protestantism (as opposed to the Southern Baptists) has adopted an anti-Israel narrative as the biased language of the recent Methodists report illustrates only too well.

To make matters worse, too many acculturated Jews have always cooperated and conspired with prejudice in order to secure their own positions in society. Julius demolishes secular Jewish anti-Zionism. The issue once again is not whether Jews or Israelis deserve criticism or condemnation. It is the assumption that all evil is on one side only and that only Palestinians deserve a homeland, not Jews.

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have long opposed secular Zionism. Nevertheless, most of them still wish to live in the Holy Land and perpetuate their ancient link with it. But secular and left-wing anti-Zionism goes back to the struggles within Communism. Much of Russian Jewry opposed the very idea of a Jewish State (ironically so too did the majority of Anglo American Jews). They fed the left-wing and labor movements of Russia, America, and Europe, and their grandchildren are the secular Jews who today feel embarrassed by the Jewish religion and Jewish particularism. For a while some could identify with a secular socialist Zionist agenda.

But as Israel proved to be as fallible as any other democracy, abandoned its socialism and allied with the great capitalist USA, many of them turned on Israel to cleanse themselves of their embarrassing Jewish identity, and reject the idea of a specifically Jewish homeland. Now that the Communist "god has failed", all that is left is anti-Americanism and anti-globalization. Israel is an easy target. This also explains the strange alliance between secular left-wing Englishmen (and other left-wingers) and those who despise women, gays, and liberals, and wish to overthrow the Western democratic process.

Julius makes the point that no other country suffers from a campaign of de-legitimization, irrational hatred, and double standards as much as Israel does, and he believes it is precisely because of its Jewish character. It is the loss of objectivity, the language of hate and prejudice that explains the exaggerated odium directed at Jews and Israel, and of course Islam's own internal problems.

It is often said that it is Israel that causes modern anti-Semitism. Julius debunks this theory. The antagonism would still be there, regardless of geopolitical circumstances. Hatred will always find a way of seeping out of the sewer; if it cannot find one channel, it will always look for another.

A few weeks ago an English judge, Bathurst Norman, instructed a jury that a gang of political terrorists who broke into and smashed up the offices of a company that dealt with Israel should be let off. He compared Israel to Nazis and said that the protest was a legitimate democratic expression of sympathy for the plight of the Gazans and against Israeli oppression. Now let us see if he or any English judge exonerates another case of smashing up private property on political grounds or compares any other state to the Nazis. If not, we will know for certain that Anthony Julius is understating the problem of anti-Semitism in Britain today, rather than exaggerating it.

This important but depressing book needs to be read by anyone who cares for the health and sanity of modern society. When violence is directed at Jews it never ends there.

July 12, 2010

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

For a genuine yeshivah bochur, nothing compares to the delight of grappling with a complex piece of gemara. This as well as the inspiration of Torah itself, explains why one is not allowed to study during the fast of Tisha B'Av. That would give one pleasure at a time when one should be feeling sad. (For most youngsters nowadays, the highest degree of mourning would be achieved if they were denied Facebook or their iTunes.)

The fast of the Ninth of Av, this coming Monday night and Tuesday, commemorates all the tragedies of the 2,000 years of Diaspora, which for many includes the Holocaust too. So pleasure is out. Studying Torah is out. The only part of the Talmud one may study is that section that deals with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Those ignoramuses who think Herzl was the beginning of Jewish involvement in Jerusalem should ponder that for two thousand years Jews have fasted and mourned the loss of our homeland once a year (three times a year, if you include the other fasts related to the destruction). Actually for 2,500 years if you include the first destruction in 586 BCE.

The text we can study, gives a specific Rabbinic take on the circumstances that led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE.They have always maintained that we have been our own worst enemies and have brought destruction down on our own heads. Most historians would want to include other internal and external factors in the Roman Empire at the time, as well as Vespasian’s personal agenda (read Martin Goodman). But what matters is the moral message.

Here is the first part:
The destruction of Jerusalem happened because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There was a man who had a friend called Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a banquet and told his servant to go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found him sitting there he said, "You are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get out." He replied, ”Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink." He refused. So he said, "Let me give you half the cost of the meal." Again he was refused. "Then let me pay for the whole party," he asked. The host still refused and bodily ejected him. Bar Kamtza said to himself, "Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and stir up trouble with the Roman authorities." He went and said to the Procurator, "The Jews are rebelling against you." He said, "How can I tell?" He said to him, "Send them an sacrifice and see whether they will offer it [in the Temple]." So he sent a fine calf with him. On the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we count it a blemish but Romans do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. R. Zechariah ben Avkulas replied to them "People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar." They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, "Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?" R. Yochanan thereupon remarked, "Because of the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah ben Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land." Talmud Gittin 55b & 56a.
Bar Kamtza was humiliated both by his enemy and by the rabbis who obviously were in the pocket of the host. Nothing much has changed. Most religious leaders forgive and fawn over wealthy donors much more than they do for the more modest. Money is still the root of most rabbinic evil. But then what about the Bar Kamtza's overreaction? Jewish self-hatred can be so profound that some of us still turn on our own with a vengeance, just as he did.

I have often wondered about the servant. Was he a kind of E.M. Forster maiden aunt, meaning well, using his own initiative to try and force a reconciliation, but in fact making matters worse?

As for Rav Zecharia, why didn't it occur to him to send a delegation back explaining their reasons? The point of course is the moral rather than the facts. Zecharia could well represent rabbinic leadership today, so concerned with the minutiae of legal appearances, with what other people might think, that he fails to see the larger picture. On the other hand you might argue that he was too modest to act when what was needed was guts, decisiveness even a certain arrogance. Rabbis, very good at scholarship or teaching, rarely make the best leaders because they won’t stick their necks out for fear of what others might say. And political rabbis are usually tied to their parties and interests. True leadership requires taking risks and unpopular positions.

No we haven't changed. For two thousand years we have been reading this same story and we still haven't learnt the lessons. Those fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

July 08, 2010

Jews of Syracuse

I often ask myself why I focus in my blog on the very small Jewish world and its problems (as well as its successes). Perhaps I should turn to the larger world picture.

Too large a canvas can be too vague and impersonal. Besides, Judaism is a microcosm. Everything that goes wrong within our small community is a small version of the larger one. Perhaps a smaller focus is more precise and instructive.

I constantly come back to the way the religion I love is misused, how instead of being a tool for uplifting humans it is too often a vehicle for controlling and limiting them. I stand for the former but this week I find another example of the latter. I had thought that the Young Israel organization was an example of what was good and enlightened in American Orthodoxy. Not so, it seems.

According to The Jewish Week, the National Council of Young Israel, is trying to expel a small affiliated synagogue in Syracuse, New York. You might think it is for ideological reasons, following the current trend to get stricter and stricter (and sadly, Young Israel seems to be going in that direction). But in fact what it really boils down to is (surprise!) cash.

In the UK and Europe Jewish communities, synagogues and burial grounds are usually controlled by a centralized organization, the result of the social and political circumstances that prevailed in the nineteenth century. That is the norm; there are, of course, exceptions. In the USA it is a free-for-all and, in my view, much healthier for it—synagogues are fiscally independent, own their own real estate, and may choose to affiliate with umbrella organizations.

Each synagogue that chooses to affiliate pays an annual fee to benefit from the organization's administrative and educational facilities. The organization can, of course, expel constituents, and by the same token synagogues can resign. It is a free society

In recent years, tension between some constituent synagogues and the head office of Young Israel has arisen over several issues of "Orthodoxy". Rabbi Weiss in Riverdale recently hit the headlines for trying to ordain a female rabbi (a rose by any other name, etc.). A few years ago he established a more open-minded and less rigid rabbinic training college called Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, to counterbalance what he saw as Yeshiva University's drift to the right. Young Israel refuses to accept YCT rabbis. Some member synagogues want to.

And there is the issue of the role of women. No, not whether they should or should not be rabbis, but whether they can run synagogues as lay leaders. They can run countries, corporations, and universities, but not, it seems, synagogue boards (perhaps they are not crazy enough).

Syracuse has had two women presidents in recent years. Young Israel does not approve. It wants to expel the Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse, officially over the synagogue's failure to pay $20,000 in back dues. The Syracuse congregation actually resigned from Young Israel two years ago when Young Israel demanded it overturn the election of a woman president. So it can hardly owe dues if it resigned, no?

Dr. Beverly Marmor, its current lay leader of the congregation, said, "We were told that if our [woman president] did not resign immediately, they would sue us for having used their name for years and would also claim our assets." The synagogue owns its building, a parsonage, and at least three Torah scrolls. Now there it is, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. The assets. That's the issue. Religion is the front; money-grabbing is the truth.

The June 10th article in The Jewish Week states:
Although Marmor said her synagogue sent a letter to the National Council informing it of the resignation and a name change from "Young Israel-Shaarei Torah of Syracuse", the National Council hired an attorney who wrote back to say that the organization's constitution bars a member congregation from resigning its membership and affiliation.

The letter also instructed the congregation to confirm its continued membership and "cease and desist from any further effort to operate as an independent Orthodox synagogue..."

Marmor said her synagogue has ignored the letter.

"This is the United States of America," she said. "Whoever heard that you can't resign from a voluntary organization?"

But the National Council does have the authority to expel a member and seize its assets, according to the organization's constitution.
I just hope this doesn't get to the civil courts. The case for the defense is that Young Israel is a badly run, incompetent organization whose left had does not know what its right hand is doing. Perhaps. But once again, it's a religious organization creating a PR debacle in which religion is associated with primitive values and money-grabbing. And it seems to happen almost everywhere.

As we approach Tisha B'Av you have to wonder how we Jews ever did get our act together, ever!!!! Sure, the rest of the world is just as crazy and probably more corrupt. But weren't we supposed to set a good example?

July 01, 2010

Can Israel Be An Ethical State?

Is Israel's mission in this world the same as the role of the Jewish religion? You might think so, given the way Israel is excoriated for failing to live up to Jewish ethical standards.

The Bible asks of Jews to try to be a holy nation. Nowhere does it suggest they are intrinsically better than anybody else. On the contrary, they are constantly described as stiff-necked, backsliding incompetents. The prophets, in particular, like to talk about a special relationship between God and Israel. But this relationship was an obligation most Jews found too demanding. They kept on failing. Yet miraculously Jews survived, with their ethical obligations intact. As they were failing, individuals, prophets, poets, mystics, and scholars were flourishing and laying the foundation for survival, even if the nation state itself was doomed.

There is a difference between the individuals who make up the people and its political systems, which it adopts and uses like a hermit crab crawling into whatever history or the circumstances decree.

If the Jews ran their affairs as a theocracy, then certainly the people and the morality would be inseparable. But it hasn't ever been that way in Judaism since Moses. Jewish polity and religion have almost always been in conflict and as we know rarely successfully.

Lord Palmerston is reputed to have said that Her Majesty's government does not have policies, it only has interests. Power politics is and must be concerned with power, with doing the best possible to achieve it, apply it, and retain it. This almost always involves pragmatism rather than idealism.

This does not mean that one cannot be ethical in politics. But it does mean that if you are, you will probably not succeed for very long. The primary role of a state is to do the best it can for its citizens, only secondarily to take care of the rest of the world. If the two coincide, then of course, so much the better but as we know it is impossible to get universal agreement on either ethics or policy.

Zionism made two ideological mistakes. Firstly in thinking it could replace Judaism as an ideology, and secondly that it had some kind of world mission, a light to the nations and stuff. But arrogating mystical concepts to politics is always dangerous, as Islam proves.

In the 1950's Ben-Gurion did actually believe Israel could be an ethical state. That was why Israel always voted against Apartheid. It wanted to be counted amongst the ethical states. But then came rejection. One country after another simply turned its back on Israel; John Foster Dulles, de Gaulle, Stalin, the so-called "non-aligned states", and of course the Muslim states. Israel had no option but to look for friends wherever it could find them. This meant teaming up with South Africa despite Israel's consistent pattern of voting against Apartheid at the UN and despite the Nazi past of many of its Afrikaans leaders. Israel justified links with South Africa on purely pragmatic grounds. After all, Israel had accepted German reparations despite Begin's moral stand against them. Now it actually invited Nazi-sympathizer Vorster to Israel.

In 1986 the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Bernard Casper, and the head of the United Synagogue of Johannesburg, Hans Saenger, invited me to Johannesburg to discuss the possibility of my succeeding Rabbi Casper, and I spent August with them. I had been a supporter of the Anti-Apartheid Movement since my student days, and its vice president since my first rabbinic position in 1968. I wanted to get a feel of the political situation on the ground.

Through an old left-wing academic and media friend, Allan Segal, I was put in touch with Benjamin Pogrund, who facilitated my meeting many of the most significant black and Indian opposition leaders of the time. They all advised me against coming if I intended to speak my mind and said that they only saw violence ahead. Interesting how differently things turned out, thanks to Mandela. In the end, the negotiations got nowhere. But one repeated message I got from the opposition was that feeling ran high against Israel for its support of the South African racist regime. How far its support went is the subject of a debate you can read here.

Israel is accused of giving nuclear information to South Africa in The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Interestingly, others say it was the other way round! Several people in the know have rebutted his claims. Indeed some claim it was South Africa who helped Israel. But either way, the fact remains that at that stage Israel needed allies, and does even today. China, the up-and-coming power, has an appalling record of oppressing its own minorities. But I hear no one saying Israel should not court China. Everyone else is.

Israel exists in an imperfect world. If it has lost its idealism, it is because it has no alternative other then self-immolation. I regret its loss of innocence, but I don't know any state that is innocent. Morality and idealism are the realms of spirit, not of politics. It is fine for states that are not existentially threatened to pretend to be idealistic, especially if idealism comes with benefits like oil and money. Britain only stopped arming South Africa only when it no longer needed to economically.

We all know that Israel is an imperfect state, along with every other state under the sun. It is a democracy, which anyway is a ridiculous system, only marginally better than most others. Actually, I’d always go for a benevolent dictatorship, if only one could guarantee the dictator would be both benevolent and see things my way. In a democracy one can no more stop extremists simply because one dislikes their values than they can stop me expressing mine. One has to persuade as many voters as possible of one's position. My role as an individual is to be ethical and to try to propagate ethical values. But I look to my state to protect me.

If genuine peace were a serious option in the Middle East, Israel would be both morally and politically bankrupt to reject it. But until we reach a settlement, with enemies openly and brazenly seeking Israel's destruction, survival must be the priority. In Jewish religious law if a person wants to destroy you, even if he threatens to, you must get there first! That is Jewish ethical law, and it is usually good politics. But it does not mean that taking risks for peace might not be an even better form of defence!

An ethical state can only survive in an ethical world. An ethical people survives despite the world.