October 28, 2010

Der Judenstaat

In 1896 Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he set out a vision of a Jewish state. It would be a state in which all citizens, of whatever religion or race, would have equal rights and be encouraged to participate as fully as Jews could (in theory) in other modern states of Christian or Muslim character and origin.

I have never been a fan of states of any kind and I detest politics and politicians with a passion. Herzl was responding to a time and a tide in history in which it appeared on the surface that humans were becoming more enlightened and civilized. And yet the primitive crude passions of nationalism bubbled beneath the surface. He saw how hated Jews were in France, and he came to believe that only if Jews had a state of their own could they achieve any degree of normality in the world he saw around him.

Herzl was the prime mover of secular Zionism, a secular movement dedicated to Jewish rehabilitation or rather "normalization". The trouble is that we Jews are not, and probably never will be, "normal". Herzl had no time for, or even understanding of, a spiritual, religious dimension, and this has been one reason why the modern State of Israel so consistently mishandles religious relationships of all kinds.

Hatred of Jews, ironically, increased as modernity opened up new opportunities. Nationalism led to states defining their identities, and they did this largely by trying to exclude any "outsiders". Howard Sachar's Dreamlandillustrates graphically how anti-Semitism all over the world got progressively worse AFTER World War I. Jews then, as now, were the canary in the mine, the test of human progress, or as in Europe, regression.

Through a series of political accidents (or perhaps Divine Intervention), Jews achieved a state that the UN at the time agreed would be a homeland for the Jews. Jews have, on the face of it, been normalized; Jewish gangsters, prostitutes, villains, and saints. Yet uniquely, the Jewish state is selected more than any other for vilification and delegitimization. Although Herzl's dream has come true, we are still regarded as being aliens. Normality remains a mirage. Although, to be fair, who wants to be normal?

Sovereign states all over the world define themselves culturally and religiously. No one thinks twice about it. So why the present fuss over Israel defining itself as a Jewish state and the Palestinians refusing to accept the idea? Other than, of course, the obvious issue of what it actually means to be Jewish and the fact that most Jews cannot agree, let alone anyone else.

Why can we have Muslims states, Christian states, Maoist states, Fascist states, tribal states, and failed states? Do away with them and I'll willingly join the club. What I object to is a state in which some citizens have rights that others do not. I object to victimization, prejudice, and generalizations. These must be fought with all the tools at one's disposal, whether in Israel, Palestine, or anywhere else (though I hear deafening silence over the rest).

Many people do not want to accept an official Jewish presence in the Middle East. If Israel is merely defined as a secular democratic state, then in time, if there is a change in population, a majority can change the status and nature of the country and reclaim it as Muslim or whatever. But Israel was founded to provide a haven and a refuge for Jews suffering discrimination.

There are plenty of democratic states which constitutionally define and protect their religious or ethnic character. So long as the civil rights of all citizens are protected, no one seems to object. Only to Israel. Therefore it seems to me perfectly reasonable for the Peace Negotiations to require acceptance of the Jewish nature of a Jewish state (assuming we can define either).

A Jewish state with Jewish symbols imposes no more on one than crosses on the national flags or the Queen being head of the Church does on a British citizen. If I don't like it I can move. If Israel cannot be what other states can, does not this amount to anti-Semitism? And if the Palestinian state in the making wants to define itself as anti-Semitic, how can one possibly believe in genuine peace?

Another factor is the "Law of Return". This was passed by the Knesset and entitles any Jew (as defined by Hitler, no less) to claim Israeli citizenship. Originally it was necessary; Israel took it upon itself to ensure that no Jew would ever again be a victim, simply because he or she had nowhere to escape or go to.

Palestinians also claim a "Right of Return". They can and do emigrate, not only to other states in the area which often, sadly, treat them badly. Still many of them do not want to give up their "Right of Return" and choose to wait in poverty-ridden slums imposed on them by their Arab cousins in the hope of regaining their land. I would support their right of return, to a Jewish state no less, if the Arab world supported the right of Jews who were driven out of Muslim lands, and their possessions confiscated, to return to live where they once did too. Still, if the "Right of Return" were to be the final deal breaker, let's scrap both sides. I do not believe in political dogma. Peace is preferable.

But true peace is only possible when Jews are allowed to live amongst Muslims and Muslims amongst Jews, with equal rights and freedoms. And no Jew returning to Iraq or Morocco or Syria or Egypt would expect them to stop being Muslim states, even if the unimaginable happened and Jews became a majority.

The refusal of the PLO to recognize Israel as a Jewish state may just be a bargaining chip, together with others, like building beyond the Green Line. Two can play the same game. Except that peace is not a game.

October 21, 2010

Statistics, Lies, and the New York Times

An op-ed appeared in the New York Times on October 9th pointing out how much murder actually costs a country. It quoted research at Iowa State University that calculated that each murder costs society $17.25 million in victim's costs, loss of earnings, and the justice, punitive, and prevention systems. Sounds like a lot, but I’m prepared to believe it. The article highlighted the fact that the USA has the highest murder rate, twice as much as any other OECD country. To illustrate the piece, a graph showed that the USA's rate was 5.5 per hundred thousand, followed by Finland at 2.6, then, amazingly, Israel at 2.4, with all the rest of the countries showing lower rates.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. I stopped, read it again and saw that the statistic apparently comes from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Well, I thought, I'd no more trust the United Nations than I would trust Ahmadinejad to tell me how many Iranians have been raped this year by his regime's secret police. The statistics, I accept, did only claim (in very, very small print) to cover the OECD countries. No Muslim, African, or South American countries were included. Perhaps the figures were true. The thought occurred that as Tel Aviv might have been trying to emulate Sodom and Gomorrah. Still it surely hadn't descended to the level of the favelas of Rio. Still I wondered. Did these statistics include only civil murders, or perhaps terrorist ones too? Perhaps they applied to the West Bank and Gaza, since the UN considers Israel responsible for everything that happens there.

Was I being paranoid again? Overreacting? I often do nowadays, to the mindless and irrational hatred directed to Israel; its warts, believe me, I see in color and 3D, but I still find the shrill and hateful microscope applied to them a dishonest distraction from the overwhelmingly worse situation that is to be found almost everywhere else in the world today. I had heard that the various mafias in Israel were having a great time shooting each other up. The Moroccans (with representatives in the Knesset) versus the Russians (with even higher representation) versus the Palestinians (with everyone's support), and now I believe the Albanians are in on the act too. And I had heard that soldiers returning from the fronts often lost control and their tempers and their guns went off too readily. The massive stress of ongoing military service and of living under constant threat, and the not insignificant issue of Jewish mothers and nagging Jewish Israeli Princess wives, as well as spoilt Jewish mothers' boys throwing a tantrum when they don't get their way—well, for a moment the thought fleetingly crossed my mind that the statistic could, might just be correct.

The latest statistics released (belatedly) by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2008 reported on the murders in the world as follows:

India - 32,719
South Africa - 30,960
United States– 16,692
Pakistan – 9,631
Israel – 177
Austria – 148
(China doesn't report)

You can do your own Googling but Haaretz reported last week that so far in 2010 there have been 105 murders in Israel--54 of those were among Arabs (out of which 23 were family honor killings). Even one murder in Israel is one too many but still the impression one gets from the NYT impression is so distorted. It might not technically be wrong, but it certainly is not right.

There was a time when I would have said that if it appeared in the New York Times it must have been right. But I am no longer the innocent young idealist who believed in the honesty of the free press any more than I believe nowadays in the honesty of the British "bobby" or the objectivity and incorruptibility of the judiciary. I have seen and experienced the corruption of them all. No one in his or her right mind would give democracies the benefit of the doubt nowadays, either capitalist or socialist ones (and I don't think there is any significant practical difference any more).

I used to think journalists were honest and objective. Those were the days of George Orwell. No longer. Reporting is so biased and subjectively distorted that I am now on the point of joining the millions who simply shut out those papers, channels, and websites that they know have an agenda they find offensive and logon only to those they find some comfort in. Ironically, the proliferation of internet sources has narrowed political perspectives and reinforced isolationism, precisely because the shrill is too disturbing and deafening. Why would I ever want to listen to anyone who compares Israel to Nazi Germany? Has anyone yet discovered gas chambers outside Tel Aviv or extermination camps in the Negev?

I never thought I'd ever become a fan of Rupert Murdoch. But thank goodness for the Wall Street Journal he now owns, where in addition to articles critical of Israel one can also find others in support, or at least understanding, of her predicament. And thank goodness for Fox News, biased as it is, for at least there one can hear and see a different point of view. And how sad for Europe where state monopolies and political pressures on broadcasting all but shut out another point of view. The unfortunate result is that civilized discourse and balanced debate all suffer. We abuse each other from the safety of our own mental ghettos.

Long live the Aussies!

October 14, 2010

Oaths

I have never liked oaths. There is so much swearing nowadays. Oaths are taken in vain and used as common currency. Criminals swear their innocence on the Bible. Politicians swear their probity on their words of honor. Every drunk and lout speaks a language that uses more swear words than civilized language. I am ashamed to say that I allow the odd swear word to escape my lips. My late father used swear "by the bones of Bohunkus"; but he was having a laugh. As for "belief", it is behavior that counts. Any idiot can claim he believes in anything including men from Mars.

In our religious tradition, taking God's name in vain means, precisely, swearing using God's name when one does not really mean it. Whole sections of the Talmud are devoted to the importance of oaths. In the old days when people took them seriously they were the most important tools available to try to find out what really happened when there was no other evidence. And to illustrate how significant religious oaths once were, there are ceremonies of annulment before Yom Kipur, and on Kol Nidrei we start off the Day of Atonement asking God to ignore our religious oaths. Who hasn't made resolutions he has failed to keep?

So what really is the purpose of an oath, if not simply to annoy the opposition? After all, if under torture a person will say whatever is required of him, why shouldn't someone who wants gain citizenship swear if that's what it takes? Does the Almighty really care if I swear to be faithful to a civil constitution that humans have cobbled together and gets messed about with by whatever brand of politics its legislators are committed to? Indeed, some American Jihadists who have tried to damage their adopted country swore oaths to become citizens, and on the Koran too. So what were they thinking? All these national oaths of loyalty and arms placed in symbolic ways only remind me of narrow-minded nationalist bigots.

The Israeli cabinet has agreed to impose a loyalty oath on any non-Jew wanting Israeli citizenship. I pray the Knesset throws it out. As long ago as Samuel Johnson it was said that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." In which case, it seems to me that Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, who initiated this are a bunch of scoundrels. So too are the cabinet for agreeing. I can only hope the Knesset throws it out.

People requesting citizenship will be "required to make a declaration in which they commit to being loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, to its symbols and values, and to serve the state as much as required through military or alternative service."

In Barak's alternative draft, prospective citizens would be required to say, "I declare that I will be a citizen loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the declaration of independence, and I am committed to honoring the laws of the state."

What if I do not subscribe to secular Zionism? What is a democratic state? Who defines it? North Korea is called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and it is neither democratic nor do its people have any say as to how it is run. And which definition of democracy are we going to have to swear to uphold? Are not American gerrymandered voting districts undemocratic? And values? Which values? Religious? Which version and whose? Do these include economic values? I ask you.

It is meaningless twaddle, tokenism mixed with politics, seasoned with prejudice and idiocy. I protest making the distinction between Jew and non-Jew in a civil democracy. It is one thing to claim that Israel is a Jewish state; it is quite another thing to insist that its citizens swear loyalty to it. Just keep the law of the land, for goodness' sake. Isn't that enough? Soon, no doubt, these lunatics will try imposing oaths on nonconformist Jews too. Most of the Charedi world shares my objection to oaths. Indeed, they are no fans of democracy, and many of them opposed to the state on principle anyway. Just try forcing them to swear loyalty!

We Jews cannot even agree on a definition who a Jew is. Are we really going to ask an Arab Muslim to swear to be a Jew? How are we going to define a Jewish state for a meaningful oath? Will secular Israelis have to sear loyalty to Torah? Oaths are common, it is true, amongst the nations of the world--but they reflect the pettiness of nationalism and reinforce the jingoistic exclusionism that ideally we would like to evolve beyond.

Before World War II there was a famous debate in the Oxford Union entitled "King and Country". By a majority vote, the students rejected the notion of "my country, right or wrong". And this apparently persuaded Hitler that the Brits would not go to war. In the end they did, which proved that words are cheap and unreliable. It is action that counts. So it is with defending or undermining the State of Israel. Any formulation of oaths will increase negativity, rather than rally support. When it comes to standing up for one's land, I'll take action any time.

My theory is that just as King David, when he ran away from King Saul to Achish, pretended to be mad so as to be left alone, the current Israeli political leadership is pretending to be mad so that the peacemakers will leave them alone too.

October 07, 2010

Paranoia

The furor over the mosque in New York is very healthy. It has illustrated paranoia. Screams of the dreaded Islamophobia are heard daily on the "liberal" media. America lacerates itself over its intolerance. Its leadership is fearful that now Muslims around the world will no longer love the USA as much as they used to.

I am all in favor of pandering to neurotics of all sorts. I am one myself, seeing reds under beds and anti-Semites under every keffiyeh. I am also schizophrenic and inconsistent. I know it. The only thing I require of other paranoids is that they recognize their disease and do not pretend otherwise. I have always claimed that two thousand years of being hated by most of the world is a pretty good justification for a chip on one's shoulder.

Not all paranoia is baseless. As Henry Kissinger once said, "I may be paranoid but that does not mean they are not out to get me." We were right to be paranoid about Christian anti-Semitism because of the evil it produced. We were right to think that Hitler was not an honorable German gentleman who really loved humanity. And we are right that currently most Muslims do not feel warm and cuddly towards Jews. But I hope no one will suggest that in today's Europe the Nuremburg Laws could possibly be reinstated. We are right to worry about the amount of anti-Semitism, whether it is Muslim, left-wing, right-wing, neo-Nazi thuggish, glitterati, literati, or the declining European trashocracy.

Our paranoia is alive and well. We argue amongst ourselves. There is open, if angry, debate in Israel, even more than in the Diaspora, about rights and wrongs, Zionism, anything and everything to do with Jews of any persuasion. We are not uniform or united; yet we wonder why a few million of us are so hated by billions of other humans and why so many people think we should not have a homeland of our own when everyone else is allowed to. The usual argument trotted out is that the hatred of Jews nowadays is all because of Israel. As if the whole of the Arab world loved us before Zionism and 1948. We know Israel makes mistakes and we are right to excoriate errors of action and policy. Yet we are also right to wonder why there are no boycotts of Sudan and Burma, no peace convoys to Congo or Chechnya, no human rights condemnations of Arab atrocities. Is this paranoia? Anthony Lerman says "yes". Anthony Julius says "no".

Either way, we Jews can still move reasonably freely around even the "new reality" of Europe, and there have been no paramilitary processions through Golders Green (though recently a gang of mentally deficient simians did wreak brief havoc there). Jews have not yet been hounded out of political parties or had their assets confiscated. And if France bans wearing a kippa in State institutions as it has for many years, we accept it as the price of living in France and don’t feel too sorry if Muslims are expected to knuckle under too over female dress codes.

We do have something to be worried about. It's not JUST paranoia. There are ten times as many attacks against Jews throughout the Western world than there are against Muslims, even though Muslims outnumber Jews by at least 10 to 1. For evidence I refer you to two sources:

Pew Forum report on anti-Jewish incidents

Hate Crimes Against Muslims Rare, FBI Data Shows

And if you doubt the amount of non-Muslim hatred of Jews in the USA, look at one of the most popular anti-Semitic websites, such as Jew Watch, the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, or the Westboro Baptists. So there is no room for complacency. On the other hand, in the immortal words of Harold MacMillan, I suggest that "we have never had it so good."

As Woody Allen suggests, paranoia, insecurity, is the Jewish condition. We are too easily upset by anti-Jewish jokes, by casual remarks born out of ignorance or stupidity. We are too ready to jump in when a little reserve might more often win arguments. And I suggest we have too little faith in the rule of constitutional law. The wonder of our modern free world is its protection of freedoms. I completely approve of the freedom to speak one's mind, however full of sewage it might be. I fear we have gone too far in allowing academic thugs to try to silence speech, but that is only because academic authorities are too weak and naïve.

I completely approve of the freedom to practice religion and to build one's own houses of worship. But the current outcry at how Muslims are persecuted in the USA is a joke. One Pakistani taxi driver in New York was attacked by a raving lunatic. Odd Neanderthals throw stones at mosques. Fewer mosques encounter opposition than synagogues. Of the thousands of Halal food carts manned by Muslims in New York, not one has been vandalized. Muslims occupy many top positions in investments and industry. It is indeed the boy crying wolf.

It is good for Jews to see Muslim paranoia. It is reassuring that we are not the only ones. It might even make us a little more understanding. But the fact is that we learned to live with our paranoia through humor, through being able to laugh at ourselves, being able to laugh at our religion and culture and make fun of it. I wish Muslims understood Jewish paranoia, and I wish more of them could laugh at themselves and their religion. I suspect a Muslim comic who made fun of himself (there are some) and his own religion (there are none) would do far more for American Muslim relations than any centers or mosques. Sadly, he'd have to be mad. Remember what happened to Salman Rushdie when he tried?