January 27, 2011


Prejudice Part 1

Baroness Warsi, cochairman of the Tory Party, says prejudice against Muslims in the UK has become socially acceptable. She also warned against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremists, saying such labels fuel misunderstanding (BBC January 21).

Perhaps now Muslims might just consider what Jews feel like. If ever there was a case of pots calling kettles black, this is it. The major source throughout the world of virulent anti-Semitism now is Islam. I am not talking about anti-Zionism or being anti-Israel, I talk specifically of hate, libel, and incitement against Jews in general. If Baroness Warsi wants to say one should not differentiate between extreme Jihadi lunatics and ordinary Muslims, then I assume she will agree that all Muslims should feel responsible for anti-Semitic hate speech. But you know and I know this is not on the cards.

I have difficulty with the very term Islamophobia. Is it a phobia against Islam, the religion, or against individuals who practice it, or people who come from Muslim countries? And is "phobia" the right pathology? Yes there are hate filled sub-humans. The sort of fascist thugs who paint swastikas on synagogues and tombstones and I have no doubt they will try to target Muslims, Jews, any convenient minority. But I do not believe that such sentiments are dominant anywhere I know of. On the contrary it seems to me that most free societies bend over backwards to accommodate Muslim sensitivities even to the point of allowing demonstrations aimed at turning their cultural clocks back to the Middle Ages and overruling their own values of freedom of speech and sexual liberation. When opposition develops against a Muslim mosque, whether in the East End of London or in New York, the overwhelming majority of politicians, religious leaders, and journalists come out in favor. And this is not out of fear but out of a genuine attempt to accommodate differences, even if I think it often goes too far.

What does exist is anxiety. Let's call it Islamanxiety. The homegrown, western educated, financially comfortable Muslims who do plot to kill and maim innocent civilians in the name of their religion are something most peace loving people fear. Is it surprising then that ordinary people wonder if a Muslim they see might be one of them? Yet, if anything the media, clerics and politicians have bent over backwards not to scaremonger.

The obvious reaction ought to be for moderate Muslims to distance and distinguish themselves in exactly the same way mainstream Israeli society and leadership rejected the Stern Gang and other violent cliques in the past or the Kahana-like "settler" extremists of today. But if Baroness Warsi does not want us to differentiate between moderate and extreme Muslims, then she is confirming the polls that suggest most Muslims around the world do indeed identify and support the extremists.

Prejudice 2

Sadly, prejudice is universal and must be combated wherever it is. We Jews do not have a good record ourselves. The Western European and American Jews of the recent past intensely disliked the OstJuden and often campaigned against them emigrating from Eastern Europe. The main opposition to observant Jews wanting to erect eruvs comes from other Jews. Lithuanians do not like Chasidim, and Satmarer Chasidim do not seem to like anyone apart from themselves (even that is not true anymore, as they have split into rival camps). But still the sorest source of prejudice is that directed, mainly in Israel, against Jews from Oriental lands, sometimes called Sepharadim or Mizrachim.

It does not make sense of course. Moses at Sinai made no distinctions based on the degree of religiosity or where different Israelites came from. And most of the greatest minds and inspirational Jews over the past two thousand years have come from the Orient.

Significant blame lies with Zionism. The founders of Zionism, the early pioneers, and the Mapai political leadership when the state was founded were overwhelmingly Eastern European, socialist, and secular. They became the new nomenclatura which has and still does dominate much of Israeli life. They looked down on what they saw as the primitive, traditional, and poor Oriental Jews who flooded in after being expelled or driven from Arab lands. Even if there always was a Sephardi wealthy elite as well. The result was a sense of victimization and alienation that only began to change when Menachem Begin (also East European, but one sympathetic to tradition and heritage) came to power. Then came the emergence of an Oriental and religious political party, Shas, fed up with being patronized by the Vuzz Vuzz (slang for Yiddish speaking Ashenazis).

I despise the arrogance of the secular left and of the Ashkenazi elite. The rabbinate of the Oriental world was always more tolerant and welcoming of its less observant. It had to, because communities were defined geographically rather than by degree of religiosity. The rabbi was the rabbi of the whole community. On the other hand, since the rise of German Reform in the nineteenth century, Occidental Orthodoxy was notoriously strict because it could shunt its less observant off to them. In contrast, Oriental Judaism tended to be more superstitious and credulous and kabbalist rabbis held the masses in their thrall. Over time this has changed. Black garbed Oriental rabbis have come to imitate the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite in dress and attitude. The Ashkenazi world has become even more credulous and superstitious than the Oriental. Even Ashkenazi rabbis often try using Kabbalah both to squeeze money and scare the naïve.

Amongst the Sephardim, rivalry and tensions have grown too, between the strict and the lenient, between different communities, and between those who reject the name Sephardi and prefer the term Mizrahi and vice versa. The terms "Ashkenazi" and "Sephardi" are now used very differently than the way they originated. Ashkenaz started as term for Rhineland Jews and Sephardi for those who came from Spain. Over time they came to differentiate those who lived under Christian rule from those under Islam and what kind of liturgical style and religious authority one followed. Just as "Mizrahi" once meant the European religious Zionist movement and now it means something very different.

Thank goodness the younger generation nowadays tends not to care too much about these ancient rivalries and on the ground one hardly comes across a Jewish family in which Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrahi do not intermarry and mix as seamlessly as Jews whose grandparents originated in Poland or the Ukraine. (It does seem ridiculous that some Ashkenazi yahoos forget that if Moses or King David came back to earth they would be more at home with Oriental Jews.)

One cannot stop prejudice, yahoos will be yahoos, Muslim or Jewish. But one can challenge oneself to ensure one does not suffer from diseases of body or mind. Besides, we Jews are few enough to afford the luxury of subdividing ourselves into extinction.

January 21, 2011

Brain Dead

There has been a running controversy in circles that are committed to Jewish Law over "brain death". Traditional sources require the heart and lungs to stop functioning. In olden days a mirror or a feather to the nose was the best they could do. Times have changed. Medical science has advanced and "brain death" has now been added to the halachic as well as the medical lexicon. It is of particular significance when it comes to transplants. Waiting until the heart finally runs down can be too late for some organs to be useful to others.

A great deal of halachic discussion has gone on ever since Rav Moshe Tendler, son-in-law of the late Rav Moshe Feinstein, and a qualified doctor as well as a halachic scholar, first suggested accepting brain death in principle. The fact that he affirmed he had his father-in-law's agreement added weight to his position. There was a furor at the time, as there always is when anything new crops up in traditional circles; but over time more and more experts joined him.

Indeed the whole issue of transplants and organ or skin banks has been dealt with extensively in halacha, and given that new issues and refinements are emerging all the time, there is a massive amount of material readily available on the subject. But equally, opinion is still divided, largely because of the fear that doctors might rush to declare death prematurely when they want to get organs to recipients as quickly as possible. And there is still controversy over definitions. Still, the fact that there might be rogue doctors should not detract from the fact that brain death in principle is approved of by more real halachic authorities nowadays than not.

You might recall the tragic case of Yoni Jesner, a highly gifted young man cut down by a suicide terrorist in Israel some years ago. His courageous and religious family took advice from halachic experts and donated his organs, one of which saved the life of an Arab child. Around the Jewish world the issue of organ donation suddenly became a popular topic. More and more rabbanim encouraged Jews to carry donor cards, and specifically religious organizations sprouted to cover all religious reservations.

In Israel, provisions were added to the national donor card system to encourage religious Jews to participate. But sadly, Jewish religious life being what it is nowadays, there has been a reaction against change and progress. It is really political, not spiritual. And strict halachic positions are often taken to be used as a bargaining tool, particularly in Israel, for political or financial gain.

Cadres of new wonder, miracle, mystical rabbis make money out of the pain and helplessness of the sick and dying and their families, promising cures and hocus pocus in exchange for reward. They too have joined a trend against organ donation and accepting brain death, citing irrational and superstitious reasons.

A year ago a very good friend of mine, Rabbi Yossi Raichik, died in Tel Aviv when a transplant would have saved him. An organ was ready at hand, but whereas his rav approved the exchange, another one objected. The family buckled, and Rav Yossi died.

To make matters worse, the world shortage of organs has led to an unsavory black market in human organs. Too often it's one-way traffic in which the rich benefit at the expense of the poor and too many people are more willing to take from others than contribute themselves. This is the main reason why so much effort has been put into encouraging Jews to donate or carry cards.

The increasingly hard line Rabbinical Council of America recently published a position paper in which it gave both points of view--those in favor of brain death and those against. It decided not to take a definitive position. Many people regretted this act of moral cowardice, but one could at least understand that in a case of differing opinions it is only fair to give both. Still, a recommendation would have been in order. But fear now stalks the rabbinic world and it is hard to judge those who are frightened.

By way of contrast the London Bet Din, the authority for the majority of British Jews, took a definite stand with the extremists. It declared, simply, that brain death is not acceptable. No mention of different views, no qualification. The Anglo Chief Rabbi, who one expects to have a better sense of moderation, chickened out yet again. In typical Anglo fashion, you say "no" first, then backtrack. And in equally British fashion, express outrage that you are "misquoted".

All the Beth Din needed to do was to state clearly and simply that Jews can donate organs but that they also need to take steps to ensure that the halachic parameters for brain death are adhered to. Brain death is a halachic option but there need to be safeguards and expert halachic advice in each case. But in effect they did it the wrong way round. Another public relations disaster, and once again thinking, moderate Orthodoxy has been failed by its leadership and has shot itself in the foot.

January 14, 2011

Blood Libel USA

We have by now, all heard of the maniacal misfit in Tucson, Arizona. One would have thought that any discussion about what might have averted the tragedy would focus on guns and the all too easy way crazy or just evil people can get hold of them in the USA.

The figures speak for themselves. Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate there are more than 50,000 deliberate and 24,000 accidental nonfatal gunshot injuries, and over 16,000 suicides by firearms in the United States--twice as many as any other country.

Apologists argue that people kill, not guns, and you might as well ban cars because people driving cars cause far more deaths than gun-toting killers. But the fact is that access to guns is far too easy in too many states, and restrictions tend to be removed by Justices who interpret the American constitution as if they were Davy Crocketts. Washington is so terrified of the National Rifle Association, the biggest and richest lobby in town, that it dares not act. Even Democrats, who usually favor strict controls, lose their voices when they get to Washington.

There is some particular lunacy in the USA that thinks a law hundreds of years ago allowing citizens to carry weapons to defend themselves against Indians and the British army is in any way relevant today. I have even heard it argued that America can only be free thanks to guns. As strange and as manifestly risible an argument as I have ever come across.

But the issue everyone is debating is whether violent political rhetoric is responsible for the assassinations. Never mind that the killer never watched television or read the newspapers and hated most of the world and all parties, and has for ages, long before Sarah Palin appeared on the political scene. Democrats and liberals are all using this as an excuse to go for Sarah Palin and her Tea Party groupies and accuse them of encouraging assassination because of the virulence of their opposition to what they see as Democratic excess.

They have conveniently forgotten that during the Bush years, the rhetoric of his opponents was far, far more abusive and vicious. As always in politics, truth is irrelevant. They are all pupils of Goebbels. Tell a lie often and loudly enough and most people will believe it. And if you doubt that this is now the norm in the Western World, just try listening to any public debate on Israel (if you can find one that the opponents of Israel have not eviscerated with threats and violence).

I am no Palin fan, but she responded to the charges. She called them a "blood libel". The apostles of freedom on the Left immediately jerked to affront and, hoping to hide behind an outward appearance of being sensitive to anti-Semitism, screamed that she had no right to use "blood libel", a term too specific in history to be applied here. Well blow me down, if this isn't exactly what most of them do to Israel nowadays. (Again, I have to reiterate, in no way do I oppose criticizing, complaining, or demonstrating against specific actions that Israelis perpetrate. They must be addressed. It is the excessive focusing on Israel, the refusal to see the dangers of her enemies, the lack of fairness and impartiality, as well as the lies that I object to.)

The blood libel actually originated in England (oh, I am so proud). It is based on the ridiculous notion that Jews, forbidden by the Bible and everything they hold holy to drink blood, actually need Christian blood for the four cups of wine at the Passover seder (meal). For it, they need to kill Christian children.

It's a strange world. The idea of drinking blood is actually Christian. The wine the faithful drink at Communion turns into the blood of Christ and the wafer turns into his body. Nowadays most Christians take this symbolically, but in days gone by everyone believed it literally. Another example of how religions can get perfectly normal people to believe the most unbelievable of things.

The first blood libel was in Norwich in 1144, when a young lad named William was found dead and the whole Jewish community was imprisoned, some tortured to death. William was made a saint, as was Saint Hugh of Lincoln in 1255, in similar circumstances. Declarations of neither pope nor king could stop the spread of the libel (any more than the fact that "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is still regarded not as a crude forgery but true, by the anti-Semitic world).

The last blood libel trial was in Kiev in Russia in 1913, where a young Jewish factory worker called Bayliss was charged and eventually was acquitted by only one vote. But still, whether it is the King of Saudi Arabia, the Russian Duma, the People from Krasnoyarsk, or Hezbollah, it is still being spread today. Over the years countless thousands of Jews in Sephardi and Ashkenazi lands have been killed because of the blood libel. How dare Sarah Palin, her opponents scream, use such imagery?

Alan Dershowitz jumped to her defense and issued a statement declaring that, although it is true the term was originally used against Jews specifically for supposedly drinking Christian (and Muslim) blood, it had now entered the general language as a term applicable to any patently dishonest and dangerous claim. Just as we use the word "ghetto" with no association to its Jewish history.

The enemies of Jews and Israel have never shrunk from purloining terms specific to one situation, like the Holocaust or Apartheid, and joyfully applying it to Israel. But of course when it comes to polemic, accuracy is irrelevant.

The real issue here is not the violence in political discourse. It is the refusal of self-declared rational thinking people to be honest, fair, and objective. Instead everyone seems to resort to the worst kind of propaganda. Truth is irrelevant so long one persuades others to think the way one wants them to. I have no truck with any politician, regardless of party, nationality, or religion. When truth goes out of the window, no area of human interaction is safe.

January 06, 2011

Dating Non-Jews

The latest international storm in a teacup is yet another dumb letter circulating in Israel. This one, signed by 27 prominent rabbis' wives and distributed by the "Lehava" organization, calls on Jewish women not to date Arabs, work in places where Arabs are employed, or volunteer for National Service with them. They insist that it isn't about racism but about protecting the Jewish faith

Naturally this has reverberated around the world's press, including Israel's, as a further example of how awful religious Jews are. You know that I completely and unreservedly condemned the earlier statement of some rabbis (blessed neither with common sense nor with a feel for public relations) telling Israelis not to rent or sell to Arabs. In a democratic state where non-Jews have equal civil rights (though they may suffer prejudice and discrimination, of which I disapprove) such opinions are unacceptable; thank goodness the major Charedi rabbis joined in the condemnation of the less ultranationalist rabbis who signed the letter.

But this is different. It concerns the issue of marriage--a (usually) voluntary agreement, entered into freely. It is often said that Israel, allegedly an apartheid state, prevents Israelis from marrying Arabs. This is a lie. It does not. As the figures each year of Israelis (mainly women) marrying Arabs proves. Israel does not have civil marriages, it is true, and I regret that. But all religions are allowed to perform marriages; any Israeli Jew wanting to marry an Israeli Muslim or a Christian in Israel has to convert to their religion and, bingo, it's a done deal, according to law.

No rabbi's wife in her right mind could possibly think this letter would have an iota of effect on a woman already convinced she is in love with the man of her dreams. Particularly if she has reached a certain age and not had any offers. The public relations snafu done by this pointless letter by far outweighs any possible gain, because the sort of women who do marry out are already way beyond the emotional influence of rabbis' wives.

The fact is that every religion I know of, does not welcome or approve of its members marrying out. Catholic priests will only allow a Catholic to marry a Jew if there is a commitment that the children will be brought up as Catholics. And any Muslim wanting to marry out runs the serious risk of decapitation, as enough cases even in Britain have illustrated. Religions want to keep their own. It is not a racial thing, because most religions are a mixture of genetic components.

I do not approve of marrying out of Judaism. Obviously, I do not include genuine conversions out of religious commitment, because the whole of Jewish history records the enrichment of Jewish life through ideological conversion. But even when a Jew marries a non-Jew with no intention of preserving a Jewish way of life I am still not in favor of cutting ties or refusing to interact positively.

Neither do I believe that if you marry out you break out in spots and your tushy will sag and the mark of Cain will appear on your forehead. But I do believe it tends to endanger the continuity of religious tradition, and if one cares about one's tradition one will want to avoid it. I know there are exceptions, but they are few and far between, and usually in denominations where the full panoply of a Jewish lifestyle does not apply.

If the kerfuffle over the rabbis' wives is indeed a storm in a teacup, it tellingly reveals the fault lines amongst Jews. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of Israel's Reform Judaism movement, criticized the letter, saying, "Israeli society is falling into a deep, dark pit of racism and xenophobia."

The former Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, joined the fray. "The rabbis' letter and the letter by rabbis' wives are part of wave of racism threatening to sweep Israeli society into a dark and dangerous place," he was quoted as saying in Haaretz. "The Labor Party under my leadership is working to bring the Israeli people together, from all nationalities, in the spirit of the scroll of independence."

Discrimination under the law must be outlawed. On the other hand, freedom of religious practice must be a given in any society, for that is precisely why we Jews can flourish in places like the USA. What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. But the right to live one's religious life allows one to try to persuade one's children to perpetuate it. This is how religions survive.

Dating anyone of a different religion inevitably raises issues. I am not saying they can never be resolved but I am saying it is not ideal for either party. And once one gets used to dating out, the consequences are usually predictable. As inhibitions relax, commitment to one's faith, where it was weak to begin with, will be jettisoned. A date in itself is not necessarily the end. I once took a Christian girl out to a concert in Cambridge (the daughter of a bishop, no less) and it doesn't seem to have had too bad an effect (depends whom you ask, of course).

But yes, I think it is right to point out the arguments and the problems and pitfalls of cultural differences. Just as even within the faith it is right to examine expectations and challenge feelings. We all put our best feet forward until we are spliced and then tend to relax. But to issue a general public letter, as those women did, just reveals the reason that Judaism is still such a small, niche market.

On the other hand, the reaction illustrates once again how hypocritical the media are in giving as much space to those rabbis wives as it did to yet another example of Muslims massacring Christians, this time in Cairo. The BBC relegated the item from its front website page to the subsidiary "Middle East" after just two hours. While it left the rebbetzins on the main page, as well as the sad accidental death of a Palestinian woman at a demonstration, for 48 hours longer. We are in enough trouble without making bigger monkeys of ourselves.