October 25, 2012

Presidents, Debates, and Guns

I have not and do not want to watch presidents or prime ministers debate on television. Politicians are salesmen who will tell you what is good about their products but will cover up any faults. Watching them try to curry favor reminds me why I once made the decision not to enter politics.

Money plays such an important part in the game. Candidates are in hock to their funders to get elected and then, of course, to their parties once they get in. Trade unions fund the Left and rich men fund the Right. Only rarely does an independent rise like a shooting star, and then fall back into obscurity. And in the USA, as in Europe, recent immigrants are changing the political spectrum. This will probably be the last opportunity of rightwing whites to get their candidate into the White House.

I recall in my student days how we debated about political systems. When a speaker criticized the Communist Party for censoring the press, the left wingers argued that the Soviet Union system was preferable to the West where capitalists decided what news to print that would attract advertisers and money. The fact is that both, all systems are defective, simply because humans are. I dislike our so-called democracy because human cupidity undermines it. On the other hand, I can’t think of any human system, religious, civil, or sporting that are not undermined by cheats, powerbrokers, and manipulators. Even apparently good guys often make terrible decisions. That’s humanity for you. I am only amazed when I do actually meet honest, good human beings in any of these areas.

In the USA, both candidates want Jewish votes and money as well as all the others'. They will say what it takes to win that support. So if you recall last time round Obama addressed AIPAC and said that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state, then the next day backtracked to appease the anti-Israel lobbies and the State Department. Romney says the same thing this time round.

But regardless of who is elected, the American embassy will remain in Tel Aviv and the USA will continue to refuse to register children born in Jerusalem as citizens of Israel. (In 2002, Congress passed legislation that said that American citizens born in Jerusalem may list "Israel" as their country of birth, although Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have not allowed it.) And no matter what presidents have said or will say, regardless of who they are, nothing will change. National interests will determine policy in the end, regardless of style of leadership, ideology, or alliances, as they always have in the Americas, the Middle East, or the Far East. Yes I am a cynic, but also a realist and pragmatist. One puts prioritizes one's country or one's religion first, in whichever order one chooses.

The most obvious proof of my contention that money dictates is the unbelievable American policy on guns. If there is one thing that I find completely incomprehensible about the USA it is its attitude towards guns. It is almost as if they have a death wish.

But both Presidential candidates are scared witless by the gun lobby and refuse to make reform a plank in their platform. The facts (see New York Times Editorial October 19th) are that 4.5 million firearms are sold in the USA each year and more than one million Americans have been killed by firearms in the USA over the past forty years. US gun homicide rates are 6.9 times higher than any other country and it is overwhelmingly the racial minorities and the poor who suffer most. People claim they buy guns for self-defense and whenever there’s a mass shooting sales rocket. But most gun deaths come from gang warfare and home accidents where kids get hold of their parents’ firearms, or family conflicts are resolved by the available means. You'd have thought the Democrats would have made an issue of this.

The gun lovers argue that it is part of American history, the Constitutional right to bear arms to fight off the British army, even if that was three hundred years ago when there was no effective police or armed forces. They argue that precisely because the USA is so lawless you need guns to defend yourself. If ever there was a circular argument this is a good example. But it also implies that having guns actually deters criminals. Quite the contrary. They come better armed.

The NRA (National Rifle Association) was initially founded by Civil War veterans to improve marksmanship and added the hunters' rights people until WWII. But now they just turned into a bullying lobby with no regard for what is good for America, only what they claim is good for them. Since it now battles to protect the whole array of assault weapons it should change its name to the National Murder Association.

There’s the hunting aspect. Not being a huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ man myself, I would have thought that’s the best argument against letting people have guns altogether. But let’s allow for sporting guns; after all, we allow poor inadequate humans to drive dangerous cars that often kill them, so why be a spoilsport about hunting. But then why does the NRA fight so hard against banning assault weapons? Do you need an Uzi to bag a wabbit? Not only, but the NRA fights against tougher registration and security checks, despite the fact it seems the vast majority of Americans who own guns are in favor of tighter controls. The NRA is no longer about rifles.

For many, guns are a matter of myth, the myth of the free and easy glory days of the Wild West. For others, it looks like an alliance with the mafia to block anyone or anything that interferes with their fun and crime. It cannot make any sense to have such loose and dangerous laws. Responsible mayors like Bloomberg are aghast that neither of the candidates is honestly prepared to deal with the issue. Obama claimed he would when he wanted to be elected first time, but then, as with most of his pledges, he chickened out when the buck appeared in his rifle sight! I have no doubt Romney would be the same.

I don’t trust either, and yet there is nowhere else I (as a refugee from Britain), or the millions of Americans, or the billions of anti-Americans would rather live, given the stated preference of all those refugees fleeing their homelands. That says something.

October 18, 2012

Towers of Babel

Mayor Bloomberg of New York has recently decided that New York is falling behind other cities in not erecting enough super skyscrapers.

I recall a time in London when St. Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building. Now of course it is dwarfed by cucumbers, shards, and herons. And upstart oil-drunk Middle Eastern tribes vie with Far Easterners for the glory of erecting the tallest buildings on earth. For a while Manhattan was the gold standard of skyscrapers. But others built taller ones and then it was traumatized by the barbaric assault on the Twin Towers and people no longer wanted offices in the sky attracting the attention of maniacal fanatics. But slowly it is recovering. Gary Barnett, a nice Orthodox Jewish boy, has built the tallest residential building. An even taller one is underway, and the mayor wants even more, to ensure New York regains its crown.

I visited New York in 1981 when my friend Howard Ronson was the rising star, the risk-taking genius of Manhattan real estate. He showed me a model of a huge skyscraper rising on stilts above St. Patrick’s Cathedral with whom he was negotiating air rights. His scheme was blocked because the of the preservation societies. Ironically, Howard left Manhattan for more flexible cities in Europe. Eventually he returned. But tragically, he died in 2007 just as he was about to galvanize New York again. He was a man with a vision (and a heart of gold). If he were alive now, he would be able to fulfill that dream, thanks to Bloomberg.

What is it about cities and their canyons of tall buildings that so fascinates us?

We read in the Bible about the Tower of Babel, of how in pursuit of "making a name". Being united could be bad if it was in the pursuit of something destructive. Over time cities have become associated with corruption and evil. In Christian mythology the Whore of Babylon represents pure corruption, and decadent Rome’s destruction contrasted with Christian triumphalism.

Is it the city itself that is evil? Clearly not, for on Yom Kipur the Book of Jonah tells us that great cities like Nineveh can change and become good. Old rivalries such as Cain and Abel are painted as reflecting the conflict between healthy open spaces, nomads, and shepherds versus confining, competitive, dirty, unsanitary cities. Our patriarchs were shepherds. Moses escaped from urban Egypt to rural Midian and met God in Sinai. Indeed, deserts seemed to inspire the founders of monotheism more than urban centers. But objective reading shows that the Bible is just as supportive of cities. Jerusalem is the obvious example. Even exile in Babylon was remarkably curative and creative in its way. It is not the place. It’s the person.

I spent much of my life in the Oxfordshire countryside, living on the banks of the Thames in a rural idyll. But it can be isolating, alienating, and debilitating. Urban life is far more creative. Desmond Morris, the popular British zoologist and sociologist, argued in his book, The Human Zoo that just as animals and birds often need crowds to stimulate reproduction, so humans need the creative hothouses of people and ideas that cities provide to be innovative and productive. For all the delights of my rural upbringing, I am far more stimulated and intellectually active in Manhattan than I ever was in Wallingford.

Anyone who has read the cheap Rutshire novels of Jilly Cooper (I only read reviews, I promise) will be fully aware of the sexual shenanigans of the English country set. And financial corruption is as endemic amongst the rural aristocracy as cheddar cheese and roast beef. It is not just the upper classes. Country lads and wenches got up to all kinds of monkey business long before Chaucer documented them. Nowadays boredom in the rural USA leads to higher levels of drug abuse and sexual misdemeanors than urban centers. Nevertheless, cities do indeed provide much more opportunity for and a greater concentration of sin.

City living has powerful and contradictory attractions yet deficiencies. It is often said how lonely urban living can be. People live in top of each other but they close their front doors and neighbors rarely interact. Yesterday I met a couple in the elevator who have lived one floor below us for 12 years and we have never met before. Urban living is self-centered living.

In New York, (relying entirely in hearsay) unattached sexual partners are so plentiful and widespread that commitment becomes a serious problem. Why settle down to a relationship that requires give and take if all the time you can just take? But sexual liberty and avoiding commitment is a matter of personal morality and values not necessarily location. It is true it is much harder to be a good person or to say "no" if everyone else around you is saying "yes". But taking moral stands is always a challenge wherever you live.

Did the men of Babel suddenly change when they were scattered? Would Nazis have been any less evil had they not gathered together at Nuremburg rallies? Was it the location of Germany or the people of Germany that produced such evil? Location offers convenience, perhaps, but the person who is animated by selfishness and self-indulgence is betraying a personal deficiency, not one of location. The struggle between the Evil Inclination and the Good is a universal one that transcends time and place.

We like to blame cities, anything outside or beyond ourselves for our own limitations. That is why the Talmud says we should choose a place of Torah to live, a place where we will be surrounded by others of positive values. The fact is that nowadays we often live in places where the atmosphere is so overwhelming it is hard to preserve one’s own values. That is why so many religious people choose to live in ghettos. But nowadays there is no escape from immorality and materialism unless one never ventures forth. To lead a good life is not a matter of where but of who!

October 11, 2012

Genesis

Everyone is conditioned culturally to think in specific ways and to adopt specific timelines.

Christians think in terms of Before Christ and After Christ. Never mind how accurate that is or if there ever was such a point in time. The fact is that most of us live in a world where this Gregorian calendar is the common one. We Jews use it alongside our own, but prefer to talk about "the Common Era" (B for before, A for after) and we are now 2012 years after. Islam has its own calendar, the Hijri, going back to and named after Mohammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina. They are 1433 years into that one. Calendars don't end there. The world has an Armenian, Assyrian, Bengali, Buddhist, Coptic, Hindu, Japanese, Thai, and even a Unix calendar, to mention only a few.

Since our religion is less personality based, our Jewish calendar chose to start with Creation, which at some stage the rabbis worked backwards to decide it happened 5772 years ago on Rosh Hashanah. This calendar emerged during the Talmudic era, some 1800 years ago. No one else agrees with us, either about which calendar to use or when creation actually took place, but agreeing with Jews is very much a minority pursuit, anyway! And we don’t even agree among ourselves, but it doesn’t matter, our calendar is our heritage and science has its own calendar as well.

Each of these calendars etches a mindset into the faithful that influences a lot more than what the date is! Much of Christianity thinks that anything before Christ was primitive and barbarian, and anything after is New and Enlightened. Islam believes that the history that counts started with Mohammad and the Koran. Claims about holy texts existing for a thousand years earlier and that Isaac was Abraham’s favorite son rather than Ishmael are simply wrong. The nasty, deceitful Jews fiddled the texts to suit themselves. This of course leads to the current mindset that there were no Jews or Israelites in the Land of Israel before Islam and therefore they cannot claim any right to their ancestral homeland.

I am bringing this up not in any way to support one political side or the other in the endless painful and explosive dispute over whether Israel should try to make peace with the Palestinians and compromise territorially to give them a state of their own. What happens in the Middle East is in the hands of Heaven, for I cannot see the Palestinians, supported by millions of Muslims, giving up their demands, nor the Jews of Israel upping and moving en masse to the USA. Any more than I can see the UN taking up the cause of Kurdish self-determination.

What interests me is why so few people seem to understand the historical claims of Jews to be in the Land of Israel in the first place. And why the Western mind, including Obama’s, seems to have been taken over, lock stock and barrel, by the absurd notion that Israel is only the product of European guilt over the Holocaust and had Hitler not arisen the Jews would have had no moral or political basis for being there altogether (except as tourists, perhaps). It is as if Balfour lived after World War II.

I can only explain this by turning to mindsets created by history. I do not want to link it to anti-Semitism, because the antis love to argue that Jews raise that issue whenever they are in a tight spot. To the Muslims, Dar El Islam is the territory that belongs to the Muslim religious world and good Muslims must try to repossess every inch of it. It was fixed by conquest. But it is argued that since this conquest took place in the seventh century it obviously trumps the conquest the Israelites made two thousand years before that at the expense of the poor Canaanites. (Does anyone still have any sympathy for them?) So what kind of conquest is more legitimate? Early conquests or late ones? Is last come first served?

It is not just religions that have subjective vision. Marx provided the Holy Text of the Left. History before him was just a turgid mess of class and religious oppression. His new religion of transnational economic and universal egalitarianism would sweep it all away. Jews, religious ones in particular, were the natural enemies of such pure Marxism. They stubbornly stuck to their religion. They symbolized the capitalist classes. They were rootless cosmopolitans always challenging the dogmas and doctrines of orthodox Marxism (hence the antagonism towards Trotsky as well as to Zionism).

The collapse of the old Soviet Union not only dealt a near deathblow to the Left, but it also revived the separatist nationalism the Soviets tried so hard to eradicate. Yugoslavia started to fracture. Europe now encourages separatism; Welsh, Scottish, Basque, Catalan, and ethnic minorities now fight for their right to separatism. And Palestinians are seen as another ethnic minority trying to free itself from an intruding colonial power.

Except that Israel was not colonial. It was there first, if you could free yourself from the artificial mindset of your ideological calendar. And the collapse of communism has meant that the Left has no center or cause to rally around anymore, except attacking capitalism and what it likes to call its running dogs--namely and once again, the Jews, the Israelis.

This is not polemic to justify the status quo. Nor is it intended to gloss over the mistakes and tragedies on both sides. It does explain the absurd alliance between religious fundamentalism and leftwing political correctness. It is not an argument against criticizing Israel. But it is an argument against trying to delegitimize it.

I have always been struck by the explanation of the great commentator, Rashi, writing in Europe a thousand years ago, for why the Torah begins with the Genesis narrative rather than laws. He said that it was so that if ever anyone challenges our right to our land we could argue that since God created the world, He could decide who goes where. It is not an argument that many would agree with perhaps, but it shows the challenge to our rights is a very ancient one.

Our calendar starts with Genesis as the simple physical act of creation, whenever it was. The world continues regardless. But intellectual fashions come and, eventually, go.

October 04, 2012

The Shtomp, Or The Case Against Religious Dancing

Simchat Torah, the festival of Rejoicing Over The Law, is upon us and once again I find myself completely out of sync with most of my coreligionists. It is not that I don't love Simchat Torah. Who wouldn't? It is the way we are expected to celebrate I have a problem with.

The Torah demands that we enjoy life in general and our festivals in particular. And enjoyment is understood on two levels. One is taking pleasure from and appreciating the material gifts we are fortunate to have, whether many or few. I do. I regard myself as a very blessed person. I thank God every day for my good fortune. And I find spiritual pleasure far less transient and ephemeral than ordinary physical delights. But nowhere can I find any support for defining pleasure as stomping around in a tight circle of sweaty males, having my feet stamped on, my shins kicked, my suit pulled out of shape, hot unsavory breath blown in my face, and my tallit and kipah sent flying to be trampled underfoot. But that is what happens at most synagogues on Simchat Torah. Why does it have to be that way?

We suffer from the tyranny of conventional expectations that have increased in their intrusiveness over the years. If this is how "everyone" does it, then put up and shut up and damn well enjoy it! You’ll tell me I am too English, too uptight, a boring old man. I like a good dance, where steps are synchronized, where there is coordinated movement, a stirring tune, and space to move and enjoy the whirl and the sense of the carefree losing oneself in the rhythm and the physical exertion. It reminds me of the good old days of Israeli folk dancing, now sadly lost to post-Zionist pop culture.

But what happens on Simchat Torah? A mass of bodies forced reluctantly to participate in a boring convention, press in on each other in a restricted space and try to force jolliness by stomping around in a sad circle, constantly interrupted by others barging or being pulled reluctantly in, forced into the ever-tighter, claustrophobic knot of compressed bodies squeezed against bodies, and it is barely possible to move half a foot at a time. It's a religious shuffle, painfully weaving its way around the bimah, a "shtomp". What kind of pleasure is that?

Or a small circle of enthusiastic youngsters who do really know how to dance, whirl around in the middle kicking their legs with no regard to anyone else, whacking their oblivious way round and round like a mad whirligig until they have either prevented anyone else from dancing or have been swamped by so many others who cannot dance but want to force their way into the only exciting spot on the floor. Then the whirling circle inevitably becomes so congested that the good dancers give up and go off to find another space and the process starts over again. It's often the same at weddings, except there if you look across at the women, they are dancing in elegant, expert styles, and proper steps, with enough space to do it so well that I prefer watching them across the mechitzah (surreptitiously) to joining in the boring crocodile of suited men squeezing up against each other looking like reluctant draftees doing their duty because that is what is expected.

To make matters worse, nowadays our celebrations are increasingly invaded by young neophytes and religious acolytes brandishing bottles of vodka as if alcohol is the only way to God. They have been conditioned to thinking that forcing drink down people’s throats is a Divine command that earns them brownie points in the Next World, or at least cements their reputation as members of the faithful. I cannot think of anything more insulting to the Divine than the implication that only in drunken stupor can one get any closer to Heaven. I like a drink, though single malt is my preferred spirit. Even so, one or two is enough. It is not a bar. I hate being pressed to drink more, particularly under the pretense of a religious obligation, when neither my body nor my mind wants to. Anyway, I would rather have a good, dry red wine. I find vodka total unappealing, even when doused in orange or tomato juice. It is fine for drunken Russian peasants, city girls in bars, or Lubavitcher Chasidim. But if I politely refuse, I am made to feel that I cannot be genuinely Jewish and must be a monk in disguise.

Yes, I know the arguments about lowering one's inhibitions to get closer to God. But I can get a religious high without alcohol or being shoved around a dance floor pretending I’m having a good time. Is this really our religion? I agree the Western European Ashkenazi world needed shaking out of its inhibited formality, but I wonder if we have gone too far.

I love Chasidism, but not when gangs of black-suited youths imitate soccer hoodlums and run around like demented yobs, as if uncontrolled noise, hooliganism, and drunkenness are part of a religious calling. I suppose that if you have no other outlet, if sports are frowned upon in your circles, gyms are treif, and physical exercise is supposed to be suitable only for those who haven't the brains or the sitzfleisch to sit in front of Gemara all day, this is the only outlet for hormonally supercharged young men (apart from going on demonstrations and throwing stones). But really, what is the difference between this and pop concerts except for the presence of screaming, nubile, semi-naked girls?

Is this what the Torah wants? I can’t believe it. But I'll do it. Because I have to set an example and because I don't want appear to be a killjoy (except here, where I can safely ventilate). But that’s social pressure, not pleasure!

Chag Sameach and if where you are is better than where I am, you are very fortunate and I envy you.