September 27, 2012

Water

Most of us in the West take water for granted. When I was growing up, I don't recall ever hearing about droughts, hosepipe bans, or rationing. Neither do I remember seeing bottled water, except in spas or highly overpriced restaurants. Britain was the country of rain, and Manchester (where I was born) was the rainiest place in the UK. So I always thought it strange that we Jews kept on praying for rain. Even when my father gently explained that we were praying for rain in Israel, it didn’t really sink in (which pun reminds me that as much as 50% of water supplied through urban water systems gets lost through leaks and sinks into the earth).

Nowadays water has become big news, as the human population increases while at the same time the world is getting hotter and the major sources of water, the artic poles, are shrinking. According to United Nations statistics, 3.4 million human beings die each year from water related diseases. (I know, who trusts the UN? But that’s when it comes to politics or human rights, some of their agencies do a better job on statistics.) One billion do not have access to clean water. One child dies from a water-related illness every 21 seconds. Only 10% of wastewater gets treated. The rest runs off into lakes, rivers, and oceans. Rachel Carson warned us in the 50s and 60s about the evil we were doing to nature, but we only half listened. We still needed Erin Brockovich in the 90s to sue contaminating companies and confirm that industry still pours millions of tons of poison into the earth’s waters. And it doesn’t help that 2.5 billion humans do not have access to toilets, so guess where most of their waste ends up.

U.S. tap water is apparently some of the cleanest on Earth, generally safe from the microbes and chemicals that have plagued water supplies for millennia. While much of the planet relies on polluted drinking water, Americans can fill a glass without fear of cryptosporidium, chromium, or chlordane. The Safe Drinking Water Act supposedly controls the standards and criteria for clean water, but it's far from perfect and bureaucracy and big money often get in the way.

All New York water is treated with chlorine, fluoride, orthophosphate, and in some cases sodium hydroxide. Fluoride is added to strengthen teeth. Chlorine disinfests, and others additives are to counteract corrosion in the pipes and other contaminants. In the UK, for many years, the national water supply has had fluoride and chlorine. Water remains safe to drink right up to your tap (assuming your pipes are not lead, of course).

At the same time, bottled water has become a trillion dollar industry. But why do so many people in the rich world pay inflated sums for bottled water every week when perfectly good water flows out of every tap (or faucet) in the house? It’s all the more amazing since 40% of all bottled water is actually taken from municipal water sources, and I’ve been happily drinking tap water all my life. Bottled water companies are literally bottling up the same water that comes out of the tap then inflating the cost and laughing all the way to the bank.

One of the biggest reasons people buy and drink bottled water is because they think it’s cleaner than tap water. But it isn’t. Also disturbing is the fact that far less testing is done on bottled water than on tap water. It turns out that unlike tap water, bottled water isn’t tested for E. coli. And it can be distributed even if it doesn’t meet the quality standards of tap water. Unlike tap water, bottled water isn’t required to produce quality reports or even provide its source. Some consumers think the taste is better, but controlled tests consistently show that most people cannot tell the difference. I concede that around the world not all tap water tastes the same—still, neither is it all undrinkable.

Not only, but parents are doing their children a disservice by giving them bottled water instead if tap water because the fluoride in tap water does indeed strengthen teeth and prevent cavities. Unless they are Americans, who seem to be in love with popping pills (which they call dietary supplements!) of every imaginable kind and so don’t mind throwing in a few fluoride ones too. Until municipal water companies in Britain began adding fluoride to water supplies in the 1960s, children usually had a mouthful of cavities by the time they reached adolescence. But that trend soon began to change, and dentists celebrated fluoride as one of the century's great health achievements.

Sukot is the festival of water above all else. The Sukah itself, which was originally used to protect from the sun, now reminds us that the summer is over and the rainy season is about to begin. The Four Plants we take and shake are dependent on water in different ways and to different degrees. The Rejoicing over the Temple Well House, which was instituted by the prophets, revolves around the pouring out of water in the hope that Heaven will replenish the supply, and of course we begin the prayers for winter rains in Israel. And believe you me, Israel needs all our prayers for rain.

Just as during the Days of Awe we are encouraged to think about our human lives and assess ourselves to see if we are on the right track, so during Sukot we examine our relationship to nature. I suggest we need to challenge ourselves. Do we really need to waste all that money on bottled water that could better be spent on charity and helping those who have far, far less than we do? Perhaps it is time to stop fooling ourselves about our water consumption, as we need to stop fooling ourselves about how good we think we are. The considered life, my friends, also includes asking whether we shouldn’t stop contributing to the balance sheets of drink companies who fool us into thinking their water is healthier than "ours".

September 20, 2012

Innocence of Religion

The pathetically incompetent film "Innocence of Muslims" has sparked off the usual and predictable riots and murder around Muslim streets illustrates perfectly the cultural chasm between Islam and the West. It is not an issue of democracy, as is often suggested. After all, Hitler was elected democratically. It is the evidence of a culture that has simply never faced an “Enlightenment". It has never had its Voltaire, or indeed its Spinoza. It blames everyone else for its own misfortunes. America and Israel are the sole agents of its own incompetence, and with its millions of uneducated unemployed the only way it can keep them occupied is by paying them to explode at others. It reminds me of the Crusades. Too many unemployed laborers causing havoc at home were shipped off to the Middle East to cause as much slaughter and mayhem as they could in someone else’s backyard. In those days, of course, the Muslims were more cultured than the Christians. Sadly, the roles have now been reversed.

It seems a Copt living in California was responsible, although I notice French news, still a week later, called it an Israeli film, and of course nothing will convince the yahoos that Jews were not to blame, because it seems most of the Muslim world believes Jews caused 9/11. One can sympathize with the way Copts in Egypt are being bullied, humiliated, and murdered; that’s par for the course. In many Muslim countries Christians are subjected to such constant barbaric assault it is hardly surprising that some of them want to retaliate.

Give a thought to the poor Mormons. "The Book of Mormon" is a hugely successful musical on Broadway that lampoons and laughs at them and their religion. But no Mormon has killed anyone over it or asked for a ban. On the other hand, Salman Rushdie, in his latest book, "Joseph Anton: A Memoir", writes about how he was abandoned and disowned by much of the Western intelligentsia when the Muslim fanatics sought to kill him for writing "The Satanic Verses". The culture of appeasement thrives. Politicians everywhere rush to apologize, to announce that it is only a small minority that is violent, and anyway it is our fault for provoking them with novels, cartoons, films, and other manifestations of that evil Western notion of “freedom of expression”.

In a similar vein, BBC Channel 4 decided to withdraw an excellent, respectful but academically rigorous documentary on Islam. It dared to challenge the Muslim fundamentalist narrative and the presenter’s life was threatened. So the BBC ends up censoring and supporting intellectual dishonesty and giving in to religious bullies.

At this time of the year when in our religion we are at our most intense level of spirituality I am bound to ask what’s wrong with some religions or religious people that take themselves too seriously? For hundreds, no thousands of years, Judaism has been criticized, vilified, and made fun of in Christian and Muslim cultures. We put up with it. Sometimes we kicked back. But we haven’t killed anyone in response. Though sometimes I wonder what our lunatic fringes who are often short on tolerance might have done had they not been forced to live under oppressive regimes for so long.

The fact is that Judaism, too, treats God and his prophets with respect. We go further than Islam in that we do not even use the "proper" name. Sometimes it is excessive, as with the dash in God’s English name one often sees that takes it far further than was originally envisioned when only the Hebrew really mattered. It is one of the Ten Commandments not to take God’s name in vain. And the Bible itself records how someone who cursed God in public was put to death. But over the years we have come to realize that actually it is human life that God wants us to respect. We have to respond violently only when we are threatened physically, in self-defense. But we are not to respond violently to perceived slights, even of our Deity.

Once upon a time we, too, reacted as if Divine wrath was constantly hanging over our heads. But most of us have matured. So it is with Yom Kipur. Once we might have associated the Days of Awe with Days of Fear. We were literally fearful. Would we live or would we die? Would we be punished with death for what we had done wrong religiously? Would we be smitten with thunderbolts when we did the wrong thing?

But nowadays we have other models. We can be religious because of its benefits and pleasures. I am religious because I enjoy it. I enjoy my conversations with God even though I often wonder if I am talking to myself. They are therapeutic and often help me clarify what I think God wants of me. I enjoy Shabbat and festivals for the different tempos and for the break from mundane, electronically determined life. I enjoy Rosh Hashanah with its sounds and Sukot with its physical symbols and closeness to nature. And in a strange way I enjoy Yom Kipur for the therapeutic self-analysis, and even for the recognition that one can actually survive for 24 hours without stuffing one's face all day long. There are, of course, disciplines as there are in keeping fit or eating healthily. But the disciplines also can produce benefits; they give long-term pleasure rather than short-term self-indulgence. Mine may not be the only way of responding to God, but it is one of them.

Overwhelmingly, God and religion are pleasures in my life and I only wish others could relax and enjoy them the way I do. And the world would be a far better place if religious fanatics, wherever they are, could really listen to the message of love that God, or whatever you call Him, keeps on reiterating. Enjoy the gifts of Heaven; don’t focus on hate; focus on love. That’s my message for Yom Kipur.

September 14, 2012

Fear and Trembling

They are called the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, these ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kipur. But I would argue that the difference between the two holidays is often overlooked.

Yom Kipur is when each one of us, as an individual, is figuratively judged. Rosh Hashanah on the other hand is when the nation is assessed. It is true there is an overlap of ideas in our texts and liturgy. But if one goes back to the original Biblical commands, one sees a clear difference. Yom HaZikaron, Yom Zichron Teruah, these are the words used for what we now call Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Memory, the day of memory through the shofar. Later the association with creation, calendar, and national time added to the idea that this occasion is about us as a people and our place in the world.

The Torah talking about Rosh Hashanah tells to remember, but remember what? The Torah doesn’t specify. Are we remembering God, or asking God to remember us? The shofar was used in the wilderness, and later in the Temple, to summon the people together, to warn of war or danger and catastrophe.

The shofar traditionally had three sounds. The Shevarim, three blasts, was like weeping, the sound of tragedy. It is not specified in the Torah. The six or nine pip Teruah was an alarm. Only the Teruah is mentioned in the Bible as a sound, as a noun. The Tekiah, is only used as verb. It is tradition that gave it the single blast sound of its own. Of all the sounds, the Teruah, the alarm, is the one that resonates with me this year more than any Rosh Hashanah I can recall. I am frightened. Not for me, but for my people.

I just do not have any confidence in our leadership. Frankly, this applies to all of our leadership, but specifically to our political leadership. Are they any worse than anyone else? Probably not, but politicians do not set a very high bar. I see the Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel argue forcefully and urgently for striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Do they really know what they are doing? Could they be making an arrogant, disastrous mistake?

In theory, they have every right to attack preemptively. Jewish law allows it. The Iranian leadership has been very publicly expressing its desire to wipe Israel off the map. If the rest of the world does not take Iran seriously, we know from our own experience that you cannot take that kind of risk with that kind of madman. It happened before. Whether it was Hitler’s dream of a Thousand-Year Reich or the Shias' messianic desire to cause the apocalypse that will bring the Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, back to earth. They both share an irrational maniacal determination to bring the whole world crashing down over their heads, regardless of any fallout, collateral damage or loss of life including their own. Remember how Iran sent untrained, unarmed youngsters into the minefields of Iraq.

The threat has been expressed. The missiles have been tested. The Iranian leadership has flaunted it to the so-called unaligned countries (who are aligned only in being aligned against Israel, with the dramatic and gutsy exception of Canada). President Obama has adopted the appeasement of a Chamberlain. Even if here is a change of president, and Romney is elected, I cannot see the State Department agreeing to a strike in Iran any more than it will ever accept Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Dogma is dogma, whether in Washington or Teheran.

So should Israel strike, the way it demolished Osirak in Iraq or Syria’s nascent program? The strongest argument I have heard against is that it will destroy the Iranian opposition, which will unite against outside aggression. Even the Iranian opposition that so many in the West naively look to with such expectation is as anti-Israel as Ahmadinejad. And there is nothing like an assault on Iranian pride to ensure they will unite against the outsider. Practically, the facilities are buried deep and scattered; there is no guarantee the strike will succeed in anything but delaying the inevitable. It would certainly unite the world against Israel, for which it seems to need little excuse. If Israel does try to attack, this time Hezbollah and Hamas have both been primed to retaliate. We saw the damage Hezbollah caused in the last war, and the showers of rockets Gaza has unleashed on Netivot and Ashkelon. They have acquired much more destructive missiles since.

Once upon a time, one had absolute confidence in Israel’s armed forces. Even today, they are trusted in Israel more than any other institution. But they are no longer as infallible as they once were. We have seen its limitations, even on the small scale and limited battlefields of Lebanon. Besides, many of Israel’s top experts in the military and intelligence strongly disagree about the possibilities of success, or indeed the need to take the risk.

It is argued that Iran would not send over missiles that would probably kill thousands of Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians. But when, throughout history and certainly this century, they ever held back from killing their own in vast numbers in pursuit of their own specific goals? Isn’t Syria proof enough?

I don’t know what Netanyahu and Barack are planning to do. They are ramping up the rhetoric, and lord only knows what the consequences will be. I am no expert. Perhaps they are right. Maybe it is a tactic to put pressure on the USA. Maybe it is all a game. I have no accurate firsthand information. What do I know? Is it just bellicose posturing, or does it mean a strike with all the frightening consequences? Are the consequences of not acting worse? I feel so helpless. I am so helpless.

That is why I will stand trembling before God, hoping that God will remember us and somehow either intervene or inspire our mediocre leadership with a new spirit, one that will reconcile and heal the conflict, both with the Palestinians and humanity in general. At the same time, in my helplessness, I will remember God and use our ancient prayers and sounds to give me strength while I pray that He "remembers" us too.

May we all have a sweet and peaceful year.

September 06, 2012

What's Wrong With State Education?

My years of suffering through the English educational system, and actually running a school, gave me a very jaundiced view of schools in general. But in recent years there seems to be an increasing groundswell of opposition to the way schools have suffered as tools in political battles.

There was a widely praised but controversial documentary in 2010 called “Waiting for Superman”. It was a polemic on failed education, with the idea that only Superman could save it all. But Superman was not coming. The film followed mothers desperate to get their children out of the state system for any chance of success in life.

It gave statistical evidence that American children are rapidly falling behind those of other countries and the USA is simply not providing enough well qualified young people to maintain its technological and commercial lead. This despite the massive increase in money being poured into education year by year, and each president since LBJ claiming that education was a top priority. Similar claims could well be made for state education in the UK. But in the UK, state funding for denominational and other types of competitive schools gives many parents more choices.

There are good state schools in both countries, of course. But it is the unacceptable number of failed, so called ‘Sink Schools’ that is so troubling, because they fail the weakest, most disadvantaged children, which can only spell disaster for the social, economic, and intellectual future of any country.

No wonder in the USA more and more turn to home education. And thank goodness there are fabulous and free educational sites such as Khan Academy where anyone has access to the best.

Now a Hollywood film called “Won’t Back Down”, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, is covering similar ground fictionally. Both movies share a theme of how parents have to battle entrenched unions and bureaucracies to get a decent education for their children.

Recently in New York, Mayor Bloomberg was prevented from closing failing and declining schools, and he was forced to reemploy failed teachers. In New Jersey, Governor Christie was so delighted he won a concession not to have to give life tenure for all teachers after one year’s service, he put up with being denied the right to fire poor teachers of longstanding over brilliant ones without seniority.

Many people in the US advocate an expansion of charter schools; independent private schools funded by the government. Some of them have been remarkably successful, others less so of course. What charter schools can do is extend the working day, fire incompetent teachers, reward effective ones, and do precisely the sorts of things that the teachers' unions, the biggest and most powerful of all union lobbies in Washington, oppose. An alternative is the ‘voucher’ scheme, which would allow children to go to good schools wherever they could find them and pay them the money currently wasted on failing institutions. Both of these schemes are resolutely opposed by the teachers' unions.

Unions were founded to protect the rights of teachers who were often taken terrible advantage of, and even today, I believe the good and the best are poorly rewarded. One only needs passing acquaintance with the lot of many teachers in some private Jewish schools who are often not paid on time, given few benefits, and expected to work long and thankless hours, to know that there is still a role for teachers' unions. But if unions refuse to differentiate between the good, the bad, and the incompetent, or stop successful teachers being rewarded and insist that teachers have a job for life even if they can’t or won’t teach, then they are clearly failing children. New York alone spend millions of dollars each year paying teachers who are not fit to teach in a school, to clock into a ‘sin bin’ and pass the whole working day playing cards or sleeping because they can neither use them nor fire them, because the drawn out process of discipline takes three to four years. Can any sincere adult accept such a situation?

I was fortunate in my years as headmaster of a private school to be in a position where I could fire poor teachers. I could reward good teachers and we had the results to prove it worked. I would not dream of going back into education today if those tools were denied me.

But the truth is that what the Unions are doing in their way is just one side of a devalued coin and no different to what huge chunks of the financial world do nowadays. They feather their own nests with obscene rewards for taking advantage of the innocence or the greed of ordinary human beings. Just as poor teachers are parasites living off the abuse of children, so too many bankers, financial wheeler-dealers, anyone taking unfair advantage of the needs of investors or legitimate commerce, are parasites. But they usually go unpunished in our corrupt system. Fair reward for time and skill is one thing. Excessive financial rewards millions of times greater than anyone else can ever hope to earn, and awarded contractually, is greed at the expense of others. It used to be said if you owe a bank a hundred dollars you were in trouble, but if you owed it a million the bank was in trouble.

Only successful economies can support the poor and needy. But there is a line to be drawn between encouraging capitalism and indulging it. Because some companies and economies are indulgent, others feel the need to follow suit for fear of losing out in talent and profits. So what was once a matter of keeping up with the Joneses has turned into keeping up with the extortionists.

Vested interests consistently trump morality and equity. The more one small segment of society is rewarded and can pay for services, the harder it becomes for those lower down the financial scale to get any reasonable kind of service themselves. It is no longer a rich man indulging himself. Now it is actually at the expense of others. In the past, this gave rise to the dream that Communism would balance the scales; but Communism became as corrupt a cure as the disease. So today we have the excesses of the unions on the one hand and the unfettered Capitalists on the other. One doesn’t know which is worse.

These two films about education eloquently argue that change is necessary. Sadly, like the ridiculous American obsession with guns, no one seems to have the will, the guts or the power to do anything about it.