January 31, 2013

The Women of the Wall

Despite the elections, the little turf wars of Israeli society continue to add to the tensions of daily life. Here’s a story about another political campaign over the right of some women to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in a manner of their choosing.

Of course, this is not an issue over the right to pray. Jewish men and women have been praying at the Western Wall for thousands of years. Israel won control of the Old City back in 1967. Then for the first time it came under Israeli control. The realities of Israeli religious life have inevitably affected decisions about how the area around the Wall is managed. Since the Orthodox rabbinate, for better or for worse (in my opinion the latter), dictates state religious policy, anything that offends their religious sensibilities can be blocked. That is the reality. Women who go to pray at the Wall are segregated. I the past it might have been voluntary. Now it is obligatory. There are arguments both in favor and against, but that is the current state of affairs arrived at through legitimate political bargaining, however much one may object to the process.

Reform Judaism, which emerged in Germany in the nineteenth century, does not accept Orthodoxy and is offended by much of it. But since the majority of Israelis are descended from communities with no Reform tradition, that majority is seemingly happy for Orthodoxy to be the default position. In the Diaspora, of course, it is different. Nevertheless, losing ground in the USA, Reform and Conservative movements are rallying behind women campaigning to pray at the Wall in their manner and ritual. In fact, they have been given space near Robinson’s Arch to do so. But that is not enough. They want to queer the establishment pitch.

Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, has repeatedly tried to pray in an overt display in the main section of the Wall, that offends, however irrationally (and I stress I personally have absolutely no objection whatsoever ). She has been regularly arrested and thwarted. A groundswell of support in Conservative and Reform communities is turning her stand into a cause celebre. I believe she is misguided however noble her intentions.

My argument against much of reformist Judaism is not its desire to create an alternative to conservative tradition. I welcome that. Variety is the spice of life. But I completely disagree with their efforts to interfere with or undermine one style in order to build something else. This is why I do not support the movement of Women of the Wall. They may pray, of course, in any manner they wish. But why at the expense of other forms?

I am an egalitarian. I believe that in matters of personal status and the law, men and women should be treated equally. And where Judaism does not do so, it needs either to accept the Law of the Land or to examine its own systemic limitations. However, in matters of religious ritual, it is up to religions and denominations to apply their own traditions, and anyone who objects is welcome to go elsewhere. At the same time, I am delighted that there are variations and differences in customs, styles, and degrees. Let each one have the freedom to grow or shrink, to attract or repel, so long as there is indeed choice. But choice does not mean making everything the same. If anyone, Jew or non-Jew, male or female, wishes to pray in his or her own way, there are plenty of places to go to in Jerusalem. At this moment the Wall is not one of them.

If one were to object to the bureaucratic stranglehold of the rabbinate in Israel, I for one would agree wholeheartedly. I despise religious parties and government-supported religious coercion. It is to this point that I believe women like Anat Hoffman should be directing their revolutionary zeal, not in trying to undermine a long tradition of Orthodox prayer at a specific site, whether one approves of it or not.

The rabbinate in Israel has been home to corruption, nepotism, incompetence, sexual abuse, financial dishonesty, insensitivity, monopoly, and turning thousands of Israelis against religion instead of welcoming them to it. Orthodox organizations of rabbis, such as the Tzohar movement, have been trying to present an alternative. If one wants to see change, then support them. The political system in Israel is such that until such time as there is the political will to change (amongst the secular, no less) nothing will. Token protests will continue to be futile.

The protests in Tel Aviv last summer against the massive inequalities and abuses of Israeli life highlighted the real issues. If Anat is concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of Israel, that is the sort of campaign to which her supporters should be directing their reforming zeal. In the meantime, she can have her services in a location close to the Wall but slightly to the left. Let those who support her join her there and when they outnumber the Orthodox they will carry the day.

I am glad there are women’s services and attempts to develop a female spirituality as an alternative to a traditional male form of service. The old way works well for me in some of its variations, not all by any means. But I recognize it does not for others. I would like to see more choice, more variety of religious experience rather than less. To try to force male systems of worship to change is not the way. To create new ones is. And if they succeed in getting more Jews to pray, I will be overjoyed.

January 25, 2013

Brilliant Speech By Yair Lapid

This is the most impressive speech I have ever heard from a secular Israeli politician. It makes me feel more optimistic about Israel than I have for a very long time.

Click here: Yair Lapid speaks to Haredi track of Kiryat Ono College

Yair Lapid and The Elections in Israel

I am pleasantly surprised by the results of the latest elections in Israel. Not because anything has significantly changed, but precisely because, other than superficially, it hasn’t.

The Jewish vote in Israel is divided, roughly speaking, between three major groupings of opinion: secular liberal center to left, secular right-wing, and the religious vote which supports whichever government gives them more money. Of course there are overlaps, such as religious parties that are against ceding an inch of territory for peace and those who don’t care what the State does so long as they get their payoffs. The secular center wants the religious world to take on more responsibility for the nation, but is not as anti-religious as the secular left. And let us not forget the Arab vote which sadly falls between all the stools.

Over the years I cannot count the number of changes in names, splits, realignments, one-man parties that mushroom, see the light of day, and soon wither, transform themselves, or merge. And politicians hop skip and jump between them. Does anyone remember how many parties Tzipi Livni has stood for?

The big news before the election was that the rabid national religious Naftali Bennett would command the right. He certainly revived a moribund party, but he became no king-maker. The news after the election was that Yair Lapid’s new party Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) was the big winner. If Netanyahu’s Likud party aligns with the religious parties, he will form a government in which he will be in hock to them and nothing changes. If he aligns with Yair Lapid, as he tried and failed to do with Livni’s Kadima last time round, we might actually see some changes in Israeli society.

I am a great believer in balance, in the Golden Mean, in avoiding extremes. I also believe that the saving grace of democracies is that one can get rid of the old and in with new. But forgive my skepticism if I reiterate that I believe that nothing much will change, simply because of the way the system works and because no one has an agenda to change it for fear that they might lose out next time round.

Until this election, no one in power had a stake in peace negotiations, a desire to try to avoid provocation with the Palestinians or the Americans, or a vision of how to avoid occupation. No one had the power to tell Netanyahu and his thankfully diminished Russian Mafioso foreign minister that braggadocio gets you nowhere and the longer a Palestinian minority is oppressed the more you lose any vestige of moral authority or hope for a normal life.

The question is what power might do to Lapid if he gets into bed with Bibi. I like Lapid’s agenda and, unlike his father’s brief grab at power, he has included some religious personalities in his party. Unlike Livni, I think Lapid might just be prepared to sit at the same table as Netanyahu. But his room for maneuver is limited. Because Netanyahu can always wave the red (or white) flag of the religious block that refuses to countenance any change in the internal status quo. They are adamantly set against community service, if not the army, for Charedi men, or any curb on the coercive excesses of the rabbinate as it veers further and further to the lunatic fringes.

I desperately want to see the secular parties stand up to the religious parties and sideline them and their blackmail. Will Lapid achieve this and also help move towards making Israel a more just society, one that is not dominated by a handful of families and oligarchs who control most of the wealth? I doubt it, but I can hope can’t I?

I should add that I am also pleased with Yachimovich’s reviving the fortunes of the old left-wing Eastern European Mapai. The electorate has shown that it is divided and no group has the right to monopolize power. It is the sign of a healthy democracy that there is this religious, social, and political variety and balance that can prevent any one side from hijacking the state altogether.

When one looks around at the disasters unfolding in the states around Israel, one can understand the feeling that there is no one to talk to and no hope for a peaceful solution. Many Israelis are proud of the differences between their state and the surrounding disasters, even if there is a fierce battle going on for its soul. I want Israel to have a religious dimension. I want to see a sector of its society passionately defend Israel’s existence. I also want to see a stout defense of civil liberties, freedoms, and equalities. I want to see a supreme court with both sides represented, but without either one being completely in control. In disagreement lies health. In unanimity lies suffocation. This election highlighted once again the rich and frustrating varieties of Israeli and Jewish life.

Avishai Margalit writes, in the latest New York Review of Books, about the impact of the British Mandate. He quotes the pro-Arab Sir Harold Beeley that the British encouraged the Arabs not to accept partition in 1947 and convinced them that they, with British support, would win the war against the new state and drive the Jews out. A similar mood of malevolent self-deception prevails in much of the Arab world today. The PLO is and has always been too scared of agreeing to a genuine settlement for fear that the Arab street would decimate them as quislings. But also because everyone else in the Muslim world, Europe, and beyond keeps whispering that if they hold out they’ll get a better deal.

At the same time, right-wing Israelis delude themselves that they can defy the rest of the world. I pray that Lapid can perform a miracle, get Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich, and the rest of the secular moderates to join him and Bibi to recalibrate Israeli society, end the occupation, and stop further settlement expansion. Allow the Palestinians to declare their own state and leave them to make a success or a mess of it (with fences, drones, and electronic surveillance Israel can still keep its tabs on security). It is pointless to wait for negotiations that cannot work. Hamas would never concede what Abu Maazen might, in his dreams; and Abu Maazen will not concede anything that might get him assassinated. But to hold ordinary people hostage on either side is no solution either.

If Lapid (with or without Bibi’s help) could achieve these three goals of conciliation with the Arabs, refusing to concede to the Charedi world, and facing up to corruption, I might even declare him the Messiah. I would certainly institute a new Jewish holiday, the Festival of Sanity, and promptly break open the best single malt I could lay my hands on.

January 17, 2013

Names

I spend a fair amount of time with Persian Jews here in New York. I really enjoy their warmth and joie de vivre. But the quickest way to offend them is to suggest that they are Sephardi! Actually, you’d get a similar reaction if you suggested that a Muslim Iranian was an Arab!

The Persian Jewish community existed long before Spanish Jewry, which is the etymological origin of the term "Sepharadi". The Jews of Persia have been in the same place since 586 BCE, longer than any other Jewish community. But after the great expulsion of Spanish Jewry, and the consequent wave of Iberian Jews returning east, the term "Sepharadi" ("Spanish") came to refer not just to Jews of Spanish origin, but rather loosely to apply to those living mainly under Islam who follow the ancient liturgy and rabbinical influence of Mesopotamia and eastwards. As opposed to the term used for Europe, which came to be known as "Ashkenaz", which originally referred only to Jews from the Rhineland but then incorporated all European Jews, even if they came from beyond the Caucasus. To complicate matters even more, when Eastern European Chasidic Jews turned adopted the ecstatic Lurianic version of mysticism, they called their style of prayer Nusach Sefard!

Ethnic Italian Jews started in Israel, moved to Rome, and thought themselves neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. And those Iberian Jews who migrated to Ashkenazi lands were called "Spanish and Portuguese". Nowadays in Israel the term "Mizrachi" refers to Jews from Oriental (Sephardi?) countries. But my late father used to be the president of the Mizrachi Movement in the UK when it meant religious Zionist (he resigned when it went into politics in Israel).

Words and names change in their usages and connotations over time. But we do seem to need names and categories and we get so easily offended by them. Charedi Jews are upset if called ultra-Orthodox. Orthodox Jews who appreciate aspects of Western culture detest being called Modern Orthodox, and many other Orthodox don’t like to be called Orthodox altogether because it has different connotations (like Russian Orthodox).

Amongst the faithful, there are all the different Chasidic sects who battle to preserve their special identities and shut out anyone who does not conform to their specific rituals and dress. The Charedi world itself is full of Yiddish distinctions, a Sheyner Yid (a fine Jew), an Ergerer Yid (a distinguished Jew), a Chasidishe Yid , a Heimisher Yid (One of Us) and of course a Kosher Yid. All this is without venturing towards Egalitarian, Conservative, Masorti, Masorati (yes, they are different), Reconstructionist, Reform, Liberal, Secular, Cultural, Intellectual, and whatever.

But, you know, I really detest these labels. They are divisive and destructive. Nowhere does Moses differentiate between good Jews, religious Jews, or common and garden Jews. We are all in it together. Some are more into it and some less.

Indeed are we Jews, Israelites, Hebrews, Judeans, or Kikes? Does it make any difference? Are we a People, a Nation, an Ethnic Group or a Religion? And let us not go down the "race" path, because I’d love to know what racial characteristics all Jews have in common, even with all this genetic stuff that we have in common (with rats and vegetables as well). A lot of people are playing with genetic traces, trying to prove we are all descended somehow from Moses. Meanwhile post-Zionist secular theoreticians like Shlomo Sand (and Palestinian rejectionists, of course) are trying to persuade us that we are no more than a rag tag collection of converts and have no connection with Abraham or the Land of Israel. Which only confirms my view that academics will say almost anything to get published.

My Judaism is an existential, phenomenological expression of me, my specific background, education, and experiences. If people think they can categorize me, or think I care, they are sadly mistaken. Though it is true I am British by citizenship, American by residence, Jerusalemite by passion and Jewish by soul.

Surnames are relatively late inventions. As the European population began to expand in medieval times, and there were too many Johns and Williams, they needed to add some other characteristic, like occupation, features, or location to distinguish. And women, in the main, were simply "the wife of". Jews had their own system, Moshe or Miriam, the son or daughter of. Surnames caught on very slowly, and in the end it was non-Jewish legislation that forced the issue. Then Jews adopted names based on location, occupation, or characteristic. It was the same under Islam and in some countries such as Iran; Jews were only forced to take on surnames in the twentieth century. So you can tell an Iranian surname from, say, a Moroccan or a Syrian name a mile away. No Syrian is going to be named Kashani and no Iranian, Aleppo. A Cohensedgh will be a Cohen from Iran, while a Dwek will be from Damascus.

So why do Iranians not like to be called Sephardim? It has to do with discrimination. Jews from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary, and Germany all looked down on each other and thought they were better than the others. When different groups of secular Jews started arriving in Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth century (religious groups had always been coming to Israel whenever the political climate allowed it) each group made the next one suffer. A bit like schoolchildren, the newcomers are picked on, so when they get to the top they make the next generation suffer the way they did.

The Russian socialists came first. By that I mean amongst the secular pioneers, for pious Jews had been coming all the time when they could. The Russians discriminated against the Germans, who in turn took it out on the massive immigration from Arab lands in 1950, who eventually turned on the post-Glasnost Russians, who felt better taking it out on the Ethiopians. It wasn’t until Menachem Begin that Sephardi pride began to turn the tables on Ashkenazi arrogance. There still does exist a layer of prejudice and discrimination against Sephardim in some small, petty minded and usually corrupt sectors of Israeli society, which is precisely why Iranians do not want to be called Sephardi. As if anyone else makes such fine distinctions. But here’s the rub. Many Iranians discriminate against other Iranians. Is a Mashadi better than a Kashani, and is a Teherani just an out and out assimilationist?

I am often asked about marrying across these internal Jewish ethnic varieties. And I always say that if you have Torah in common, the rest is secondary. But it’s certainly good for the genes!

January 10, 2013

Raymond Dwek

I am not a great fan of "awards". Too many of them are given for the wrong reasons to the wrong people. But here is one I am delighted with. Here is the official citation:

"Professor of Glycobiology at Oxford University Professor Raymond Dwek has been honored with the CBE for services to UK/Israel scientific collaboration. One of the most distinguished biochemists in the UK, Professor Dwek has been a major force in furthering UK/Israel scientific collaboration for over a decade. A key element of his work is promoting peace through science. He has made significant medical advances, invested enormous time and effort in sharing the UK’s science excellence with the international community, all of which has brought many benefits for the UK and Oxford University.

Professor Dwek has excelled in science, education, teaching, business innovation for the commercialisation of research and outreach to the community. He is internationally recognised as the founder of glycobiology (the role of sugar in biological processes). He pioneered the field with the US company, Monsanto, who awarded him $50m for development. His research has led to significant changes in the clinical treatment for Gaucher’s disease and he has developed new technologies for antivirals for HIV and Hepatitis C. He co-chairs the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council to increase scientific collaboration. Together with Oxford University, he initiated collaborative work on water development and biotechnology with both Israelis and Palestinians. He has encouraged and inspired young biologists and promoted women in science. He has raised £60m for joint studentships with other countries and research successes have brought £100m to Oxford University, including two new buildings. He has maintained the UK’s position at the forefront of innovative international science."

Raymond and I were both pupils at Carmel College. He was a year senior to me and head boy to my ordinary prefect. He was clever, a good sportsman, and a great organizer; he doesn’t need me to sing his praises as either an outstanding scientist or a committed Jew. His award is richly deserved. Incidentally, my brother David is also a CBE for his services to interfaith understanding and cooperation and that’s deserved too.

Non-Brits may well wonder what the fuss is about. The truth is the Old World loves what are deridingly called "gongs". Whereas in the USA brilliance or achievements are usually recognized in a monetary fashion, in nearly bankrupt Europe they prefer medals, sashes, and decorative titles.

Orders of chivalry originally began in medieval times, linking power to religion. The monarchy awarded knighthoods and other titles to those who won battles and stole land and possessions for the crown. These titles were hereditary and qualified the highest ranks, the lords (who more often than not were the illegitimate offspring of amorous kings, favorites of queens, or simply private bankers), to sit in the House of Lords and have a say in the running of the country. There were different levels of appointments. The main orders were "the Most Honourable Order of the Bath" for senior military officers and government officials, "the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George” for diplomats, and later "the Royal Victorian Order" for those who had personally served the royal family ( and we won’t ask how). Offices of heralds, and experts in etiquette, and manuals explaining who got priority or how to address them proliferated, and it all became part of what people either loved or hated about aristocratic and “class” societies.

As Britain expanded into an empire, more and more people needed recognition. So King George V established "The Order of the British Empire" in 1917, with five classes in civil and military divisions. There were "Knights of the Most Excellent Order of the Grand Cross of the British Empire" (GBE), "Knights of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" (KBE or DBE), "Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" (CBE), "Officers of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" (OBE), and down at the bottom, "Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire" (MBE).

Many Britons have declined such awards on the grounds that it is dated, reminiscent of a class society, and no longer relevant. Others object because most of the awards are pro forma for people who just sit out their jobs. Many are political, rewarding party members and supporters. And no doubt some out of pique! Nevertheless, I do feel less negative about the whole thing when people I know and admire get recognized.

In Raymond’s case, there are some other considerations that make it special. Notoriously, the Civil Service is biased against Israel. This explains why the Queen has never been allowed to visit Israel. So when an award is made for involvement in and support of work in Israel, particularly at a time when it is so excoriated by the mass of British society, this is quite remarkable. But I am also delighted that recognition is made of all the hard work and resources that Israel devotes to trying to help the Palestinians too. You wouldn’t know it from reading the media. Here you have a devoted Jew, a top British academic working with an Israeli University to improve the health and quality of life of all the inhabitants of the area, Jew and Palestinian. I think that deserves a whole lot more than a CBE, but it’s a start!

January 03, 2013

Margaret Netanyahu

Margaret Thatcher was an incredibly divisive British prime minister. Personally, I could never warm to her. She was, however, credited with standing up to the unions. Although she had the immense good fortune to come to power as North Sea Oil provided the UK with a financial bonanza, she certainly changed the mood of the country from depressed hopelessness to one of optimism. Under her, Britain regained its mojo. Another of her great jingoistic triumphs was the successful Falklands War in 1982. It was perhaps the last hurrah of the British Empire.

President Ronald Reagan loved her, and in general she was held in greater affection by the United States than she was by most Britons. So it came as a great surprise to me to learn that Reagan nearly scuppered the Falklands campaign.

Here is an extract from an article that appeared in the British Sunday Telegraph on December 28, 2012:

“The United States wanted to give Argentina advance warning that Britain was going to retake South Georgia in 1982 in a move that would have spelt disaster ahead of the Falklands campaign, according to newly released files. The proposal, by US secretary of state Alexander Haig, was intended to show the military junta in Buenos Aires that America was a neutral player and could be trusted to act impartially during negotiations to end the conflict.

Ronald Reagan, then US President, made repeated attempts to persuade Margaret Thatcher to negotiate a truce so the Argentinians could save face and avoid "complete humiliation". He was told by the State Department that support for a European colonial power would undermine ties with Latin America and hamper Washington’s covert campaign against communism in the western hemisphere. Thatcher refused, telling Mr. Reagan in a late night phone call on May 31st, 1982 that she would "not contemplate" a ceasefire after the loss of "precious British lives".

Separately, Mrs. Thatcher found herself subject to demands from the Pope John Paul II. In one telegram, he calls on God to help "secure an immediate ceasefire. Thatcher, however, stood her ground, replying that Argentine aggression "cannot be allowed to succeed".

While US defense secretary Caspar Weinberger proved a staunch ally of Britain from the outbreak of war on 2 April 1982, authorizing secret shipments of weapons vital to the task force, the US state department was anything but sympathetic to British interests.”

You will notice that it was the US State Department that was the source of the anti-British sentiment, as indeed it has always been, and remains today, against anything pro-Israel. The same was true during the Yom Kipur War, when again the State Department wanted the USA to stay out of the conflict and Kissinger (uncharacteristically and surprisingly) overruled them. It has always been the same in Britain. The Foreign Office’s civil servants have always been Arabists. It has always been the politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, who have tended to overrule them. Indeed, today the majority of the frontbench of the conservative British government is sympathetic towards Israel; the Foreign Office is not. Bureaucrats think with statistics, weighing up numbers and spheres of influence. They think with their minds rather than their hearts. Politicians are more likely to decide emotionally or as a result of personal pressure.

So it is with Israel. All logic goes against it. More Muslims in the world, Arab oil, greater Arab wealth, world opinion (or some would say prejudice), all militate against supporting Israel. Yet time and time again, when it really comes down to the crunch, against the odds, decisions go Israel’s way. There may be two reasons for this.

The first is that Israel is still more like the West than the East. It is surrounded by a sea of hatred and yet manages to survive. It is hated because it is a military power and an occupying power. Give me any example of anyone who likes to be occupied? Rather a failed government of their own than a successful one imposed from without. Yet it remains very much the underdog in comparison to the numbers, wealth, and power of the Arab and Muslim world. And counter intuitively, it is still both admired and hated.

But secondly, it is led by men who will fight for it, be prepared to be unpopular, refuse to curry favor with the international community and its journalists if they perceive its best interests are not being served. I don’t like Netanyahu any more than I like any politician. I dislike right-winger politics wherever it is. And I believe no stone should be unturned in the pursuit of peace, and making inflammatory statements or actions is dangerously infantile if not counterproductive. But I have to hand it to him. Netanyahu is prepared to fight and be unpopular in the process. So was Margaret Thatcher. That is why the majority of the Israeli public and I would rather have someone like that as a leader than a nominal Jew who cares little for our heritage, who would put Hollywood’s values over Judaism’s.

No one can deny the need to keep the USA sweet. Britain has known that since the First World War and Israel knows that now. But when push comes to shove, no one else cares as much about a Jewish state as it does. Every now and then the world needs to know that, warts and all, the Jews will fight to the bitter end no matter who refuses to support them. They might not have liked Thatcher but they admired her guts. Who knows one day history might be kind to Israel.