December 26, 2013

The Shah: What Israel should learn from Iran (and Egypt and Syria and Lybia)

I have recently read “The Shah” by Abbas Milani 2011, and certain significant parallels strike me as very relevant today.

As a senior army officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi ousted the old Qajar dynasty in 1925. He modelled himself on Kemal Ataturk and wanted to drag Iran out of the medieval grip of the Shia mullahs and transform Persia into a modern state called Iran. He banned the old religious dress imposed on women in public and doubled the number of schools and universities. In particular, he wanted to limit the power of the reactionary mullahs. During the Second World War, Britain and Russia combined to force his abdication, because they thought he was soft on Germany. Ironically, he was particularly and effectively protective of his Jewish subjects, who were amongst the Pahlavi’s staunchest supporters.

Reza’s son Mohammad Reza replaced him in 1941, almost accidentally, because there was no alternative. Mohammad Reza had a tendency to vacillate and play one side off against the other. But unlike his father he compromised with the religious leaders and returned much of their power. Concessions on one side were balanced by a highly repressive secret service. In the end he even exasperated his allies who pulled the rug from under him, allowing him to fall in 1979. Everyone was blindsided by Ayatollah Khomeini into allowing him to return from exile, gain power, and turn Iran back to its fanatical Middle Ages.

During the post-war period, America and Britain were very busy jockeying for power in the Middle East (amongst other places, of course). It was not just a matter of controlling the oil supplies, important as that was. After all, the halt of Hitler’s campaign in Eastern Europe was to prevent him gaining control of the Baku oil fields. The Cold War saw Russia in Azerbaijan on Iran’s border and gaining control of the Caspian oil. Iran’s southern Gulf oilfields were very significant in the struggle, which in American eyes was to prevent Russia taking over Iran at all costs.

This was one of the main reasons the CIA intervened in the Kim Roosevelt-led Operation Ajax to get rid of Mossadegh the unpredictable prime minister in 1953. They feared he was soft on Moscow, and he nationalized the oil industry. The Western powers feared the political as well as the financial consequences. This constant meddling in Iranian affairs is why there has always been a strain of paranoia in Iran against the Western powers.

In Iran itself the communist Tudeh party, was well entrenched, and there was a genuine fear that it would take the country over. Indeed I remember in 1978 a conversation with Chimen Abramsky, the brilliant neo-Marxist, mercurial, academic son of the great scholar Yehezkel Abramsky (and Head of the London Beth Din), in which he confidently predicted the Tudeh would displace the Shah and gain control.

A recent book, “America’s Great Game” by Hugh Wilford, documents the interventions of Kim (Kermit) Roosevelt, the archetypal Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist mandarin near the top of the CIA. In addition to his covert political role, he also managed to benefit personally from the Iranian oil industry. And these are the sort of people, of course, who complain about the influence of Jewish money.

Now I come to my main point. Mohammad Reza was so concerned to play sides against each other that, in contrast to his father, he courted the ayatollahs and restored a lot of their power. He mistakenly thought that he could ride the tiger. In the end, it was the tiger that turned rabid and destroyed him and most of what he had hoped to achieve for his country.

He seemed, not unlike Obama, to be unaware of the concept of Taghieh. This is a Shia Muslim theological principle that it is not only permissible, but even laudable to lie and deceive to achieve religious ends. The Shah was deceived. The West was deceived. The merchant and intellectual classes who wanted more of a say in running the country were deceived. They all miscalculated the true intentions of religious fascism.

How sad it is that religions, supposedly the standard bearers of honesty and purity, time and again end up being the poster boys of deviousness and deception.

Exactly the same happened in Egypt. Morsi and the Brotherhood presented themselves as a moderate religious alternative to the Mubarak’s fascism. Instead they used the infant democratic process to blind the Army into giving then a free hand and the West into praising them for their “Moderate Islam.” By now we know what that means.

Israel made a similar mistake in supporting the Islamo-fascist Hamas as a counterbalance to the secular PLO. In 1987 the supposedly brilliant analysts argued that the way to Divide and Rule the Palestinians was to give tacit and underground encouragement to the religious militants in order to contain the secular PLO. It worked for a while. But then it too used the political process to get hold of Gaza and promptly destroyed what fragile democracy there was.

This is the fear in Syria. The fascism of Assad is challenged by extreme Muslims who, if they got power, would squash democracy in favor of a theocracy. Having displaced the moderate rebels, they are now courting Western opinion by claiming they will not be as fanatical as the West currently fears.

I love my religion. But I can see all too clearly how dangerous political religion is everywhere in the world. Vast hordes of unemployed youth are attracted to what appears to be a genuinely religious and social organization. But they are then easily turned into a murderous rent-a-mob. The siren music of moderation is a sham, a front to gain power, and then that power will be turned against freedom.

I fear for Israel. More and more politicians, industrialists, and wealthy nomenclatura are courting pseudo-mystical rabbis in search of money, blessings, and votes. The demographics favor the religious extreme. That is why it is so important not to allow religious fanaticism to infiltrate the mechanisms of power any more than they have so far. Sympathetic, holy rabbis soon turn into damning furies when their wishes are denied. Interestingly, the vote for religious parties in Israel is well below the number of potential voters in the Charedi community, and it has not risen in tandem with the birthrate. I take this to mean that many of the religious community are intentionally not voting for religious parties.

This is very hopeful. It means that they may be loyal to the religion and love it as much as I do, but they know the dangers of trusting religion in power. We should accord religious leaders respect, but fear the abuses. As the lovely Hebrew proverb goes, “Kabdeyhu, VeChashdeyhu.” Honor him, but be on your guard.

December 19, 2013

Selfie

The Oxford University Press is the nearest thing to an authoritative arbiter of the English language. English speakers, unlike the French, do not have an Academie to impose a centrally mandated straightjacket on language. Each year, however, they do decide on “Word of the Year.” This year it was “selfie” (or, as others claim, “selfy”).

The word hit the news last week when President Obama took a selfie cuddling up to the Danish premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt, with the British PM desperately trying to get into the picture. It was at the memorial service for Mandela. OMG, as local teens love to say, (Google it if you don’t know) what has the world come to? Was he so bored he had nothing better to do?

Definitions of a selfie vary slightly. The Urban Dictionary describes selfies as:
“pictures taken of oneself while holding the camera at arms length, also known as being camera raped, where one person takes many pictures of themself on anothers camera.”
(Note the grammatical mistakes.)

More comprehensively, the Macmillan Dictionary says:
“A selfie is a picture of yourself that you take using a camera on a mobile phone or other hand-held device, usually composed of no more than head and shoulders. Selfies are often taken with a pose and/or camera angle that attempts to add a little something unique – not just a conventional picture of someone looking straight at the camera. The domain of the selfie is almost always digital – they are not printed, framed and put on the mantelpiece, but circulated via mobile phones, tablets, etc., for consumption by fellow partakers of social media. Arguably this is the key to their appeal – we can use them to remind each other of what we actually look like, or to put a face to names where acquaintance is restricted to the online universe. But of course another possible reason for the emergence of the selfie is practical – in the analogue era of photography, it was awkward to take a photo of yourself, and potentially rather wasteful to use up one of your precious exposures on a roll of film for a picture that would more than likely be out of focus. Today by contrast, we can snap away, bin anything we're not happy with, and edit and titivate to our heart's content to get that all-important image we're so keen to circulate.”
Experts on the media have jumped in to advise against taking selfies against a background of crime, catastrophe, or irresponsible behavior, as damaging to one’s own image. Uploading such stuff to the various social media options could have a disastrous impact on one’s social life, job, and college applications, not to mention marriage prospects. Certainly Obama’s did not do him any favors.

Other contenders for this year’s “Word of the Year” honors were “twerk” (to wiggle your bottom and other body parts provocatively in public and pretend it’s a dance) and “binge-watch” (to sit mindlessly in front of the television for long periods of time). MY expert advisor assures me I am wrong and it’s specifically to watch multiple episodes (like one or more seasons) of a show in succession. Well, there you go. Perhaps we do need an Academie after all to tell us definitively who is right. Either way, they are symptomatic of our current cultural malaise.

This narcissistic preoccupation with self is a sign of our times. Humans have always killed other humans, but modern technology has multiplied the death toll exponentially. Humans have always been self-centered egoists seeking instant gratification. The digital age has allowed many more of us to indulge and exaggerate the amount of self-publicity we scatter around the place like litter (or bird droppings). It does not show humanity in its best light, any more than the embarrassingly bad reality shows or those that allow boring people their two minutes of TV fame. It all proves Rev. Jonathan Swift right. We are a race of Yahoos. Even horses come off as more attractive.

Naturally the very religious world, be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim, jumps at such examples of cultural decadence to bolster their claim that only they are safe, moral societies with waterproof and airtight morals and standards. If only it were true. For all the outward piety of secluded or protected ghettos or enclaves, we are constantly being made aware of the disgusting sexual abuse of minors, followed by cover ups on the part of major authorities and pressure on victims to remain silent. Cheating, deception, and corruption are constantly bubbling to the surface and being outed, precisely because the very modern media tools that allow us to behave so badly, also reveal the dirty underbelly of ghettos of every kind. Closed societies allow problems to fester and their denizens to think that if they excoriate the outside world, that will make their inner worlds safe and secure.

So yes, the internet, television, phones with cameras, all the trappings of modernity do indeed allow for abuses and misuses. Prostitution and pornography have always existed. If now one can get it all on cellphone, that doesn’t change the pathology. But at the same time these very tools have allowed us to take the lid off the heavy layers of hypocrisy that much of the religious world has used to keep itself pure and untouchable. The attempted ban by some very Orthodox on the internet, which is manifestly failing, might for awhile help prevent such new words as these reaching the top of the list: mikvahrape, ghettobully, koshertaxfiddleifitsforayeshiva, or glatwaysofrefusingaget. But that doesn’t mean these are not problems. And if this true of us, how much more so is it true of much bigger and more dangerous religious hierarchies.

I need to add this line to preempt the usual response I get if I ever criticize religious communities. I am NOT, I repeat NOT, saying all, or most, or much of the Charedi world is like this. It is not. But small parts and some individuals really are. It does us no good to pretend all is perfect in our garden and let them get away with it.

Information, publication, dissemination, and revelation, these are our best safeguards against the tyranny of the closed and narrow-minded. But we need to learn how to use them responsibly, ethically, and morally. Happy is the person who can sleep tight at night knowing he or she has nothing embarrassing that might appear on Facebook in the morning. A little less selfie-ishness and rather more consideration.

December 12, 2013

Nelson Mandela

I first became aware of Nelson Mandela in 1956. I was fourteen and a very disruptive teenager. My father was going on a fundraising tour of South Africa in support of Jewish education and he decided to take me with him in the hope of mitigating my rebelliousness. For much of the time, while my father was busy, I was entrusted to a group of communal ladies who it turned out were seriously involved not only in trying to mitigate the awful conditions in the black townships but also in actively opposing Apartheid. They took me round to Alexandra Township and Soweto to see firsthand what life for the black majority was like.

One day we went on a trip to Pretoria where the famous Rivonia trial was taking place, in which Black and Jewish defendants were on trial accused of trying to overthrow the government. The prosecutor, a prominent Jew named Percy Yutar, was much reviled by my newly found friends, but supported by many in the Jewish establishment. The Chief Rabbi of the time, on the other hand, the late and outstanding Louis Rabinowitz, heroically denounced the Afrikaner regime and its policies. Amongst the black defendants, Nelson Mandela stood out for his bearing, dignity, and natural leadership. I was too young to be allowed in to the court, and so my ladies deposited me with some demonstrators they knew outside while they went in. The trial proved a farce, but it was the start of what would send Mandela for over 27 years to the infamous Robben Island, which made Alcatraz look like paradise.

This was the beginning of my modest career as a campaigner against Apartheid, which eventually took me to the position of vice president of the Scottish branch of the anti-Apartheid movement and friendship with one of its heroes, Rev. Trevor Huddleston.

Thirty-four years later I was invited by the then retiring Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper to come to Johannesburg to discuss succeeding him. Before I went out there, some friends who were heavily involved in the struggle gave me the names and numbers of prominent underground activists so that I could get a different angle on the possibilities. During the six weeks I spent in Johannesburg, I had several secret meetings, all very cloak and dagger, with various black and colored activists who all warned me in the strongest terms against coming out there. They all asserted that there was going to be a revolution, a bloodbath, sooner than expected, in which the white population would be decimated.

They also told me that although Israel had always voted against Apartheid at the UN, its military and security agencies were on close terms with their South African counterparts. There was ill feeling towards Israel because of Israeli advisors in the detention centers, jails, and interrogation rooms. And if I thought that speaking out against the regime was a possibility, I should know that it would be pointless because I would be deported on the spot. I didn’t go to South Africa in the end, for personal reasons.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Mandela, alone amongst the detainees, agreed to start negotiating with the Apartheid regime. Despite internal opposition within the ANC, he believed there had to be a peaceful way of winning. Eventually he was released and became the standard bearer of reconciliation that led to the peaceful demolition of Apartheid and the establishment of majority rule. He became the first President of a racially free South Africa. That he was able to avoid a bloodbath in the process was entirely the result of his vision and friendship with the more moderate and farsighted white Prime Minister de Klerk. It ensured that both sides went out of their way to achieve reconciliation. Although flawed, the “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” went a long way towards facing up to and atoning for the evils committed in the struggle, on both sides. If South Africa today is an unhappy country with a massive gulf between the rich and the poor, it is the fault of its black leadership, not a white elite.

Mandela was surrounded by and succeeded by small men who lacked his stature and moral authority. But he too made mistakes. I regret he did not stand for a second term to be able to exert his moral influence for longer. I regret he did nothing about that evil African tyrant, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a primitive tribal gangster despite his LSE degrees and the polar opposite of Mandela. I regret he was unable to rein in the corruption of the ANC. But Mandela was human. He was not a saint.

There are Jews who believe he was an opponent of Israel. That is simply not true. But like the current President of Israel himself, he regretted the sorry state of the Palestinians, the occupation and its inevitable consequences. He thought Israel was better placed than anyone else to find a remedy and expressed regret that Israel was not doing more. But he also knew and said that the Arab world and the Palestinians, themselves, were parties to their own tragedy. He never, ever compared Palestine to Apartheid. He knew what real Apartheid was.

Yes, he was a politician. He did embrace Arafat (as did other friends of Israel), and he was aware and sensitive to the very strong resentment within parts of the ANC and its allies towards Israel. But he always repeated his friendship and gratitude to Israel and those Jews who supported his struggle. He never expressed any of the bitter enmity towards Israel of Desmond Tutu, or indeed many of the senior South African politicians of today. The memoir of the late chief rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, amply recalls the friend that Mandela was.

We Jews like to give titles like “the pious, or the saintly of the non-Jewish world”, misused and misapplied from our traditional sources. There is a difference between “The Pious of the Nations of the World”, which implies saintliness, and “The Great of the Nations of the World”, which implies achievement. I do not know how pious he was. But there is no doubt in my mind that he was great. I would argue that Nelson Mandela was the greatest African in recorded history.

December 05, 2013

Death

I have just had to try to comfort a family devastated by the loss of middle-aged siblings, barely months apart, after long debilitating illnesses and decline. It is so hard to see suffering, the living and the dying. For me it is made harder still by the desperation of those who seek any and all kinds of pseudo-religious, superstitious charms and promises that the well- meaning and not-so-well-meaning assure the family will do what medicine cannot.

The inevitability of death makes the end no less hard to bear. The loss, the hole in one’s heart, the loneliness remain forever. Only sleep, distraction, or occupation gives us any respite. We know there’s no life without death. But the unpredictability and illogicality of how and when it strikes, adds a cruelty that most humans find hard to cope with.

If we were purely rational beings we should not cry. If we believe in the idea of soul, a spark of the Divine in each one of us, what then could be better for that spark than to return to its Heavenly source, escaping all the travails of the physical world? And if we believe that we just die, the lights go out, then what is there to feel sorry about in that other person’s eternal sleep? We who are left behind cry because we feel deprived of love, wisdom, or support. But that surely is about us, not the dead. We weep for ourselves. We mourn and pay respect to the person who has died.

We ask “why” when we know precisely why. We know full well about diseases and why some people are more susceptible than others or inherit certain sets of genes. Any doctor can explain the causes of death. We know why the earth moves or tsunamis strike or rivers overflow. Just as we know that if we take risks we are more likely to put ourselves in danger. We know why a drunk or sleepy driver loses control of his vehicle or why a jet engine fails. We know why humans do terrible things and often kill innocents. But the question really is, “Why is this happening now, to me?” Or better, “What should I do about it?”

God has a purpose for everything, we are told, and yet we cannot know the Mind of God. Why does a child die in the womb or minutes after birth? Did it do anything to deserve it? And if its role was to impact its bereaved parents, can there not be a more productive way to teach humans lessons than by going through the whole process of pregnancy for nothing?

Why do the good suffer and the bad prosper? None of the answers satisfy. Only Rav Yannai had the honesty to admit that “we simply do not have the answers as to why the wicked are in peace or the righteous suffer” (Avot 4.15). “The world functions according its own rules”(Avodah Zara 54b). But still we wonder why God did not intervene in so many tragedies.

We humans need to believe we have done our best to leave no stone unturned, to try. We scour the world for mystical cures and charms. We even pay for strangers to pray for us. We feel we must be active, because otherwise we are even more aware of our helplessness.

Others try to comfort us with words that often make it worse. We hear such vapid clichés from the well-meaning as, “We are only given as much to bear as we are capable of.” Go tell that to a suicide. Some tell us what they have no right to tell us, that it will all be OK, that God will answer our prayers, that this secret formula or that prayer or blessing will work. It might, or it might not. We have no way of knowing the boundary line between toiling in vain and trying to reverse what is decided. Is it better to tell someone to accept the Heavenly decree, or should we give hope for as long as possible even if it is false hope?

The pain of loss is so confusing that people who never, ever considered themselves religious suddenly turn to prayers and blessings and charms and names. They have nothing else to turn to, the scientists having told them the score. Yet scientists can be wrong too, and the power of the human spirit can overcome a lot. But not everything.

Illness and death are not to be welcomed. But we can learn from every bad thing that happens to us. We can learn to appreciate what we have. Religion does not give us answers. God remains inscrutable. But it does give us framework, rituals, communities, support structures, and discipline that all help us cope with whatever comes our way. Actually, psychology supposedly aims at the same thing. The only response can be. “You are here. You are alive. So use your gift of life and do not waste it.” But go tell that to someone in pain.

The hardest part of being a religious functionary is, in my experience, dealing with those who have suffered loss. First comes shock. Then there is anger against God or clergy or anyone handy, and finally the adjustment. The Talmud says it takes a year, this adjusting to loss. And we, the public face of religion, are expected to talk, to use words, to ignore the lessons of Job’s mourners who sat in silence waiting for him to open the conversation. We should remain silent, just hug, support, and love.

Our religious customs offer us a way forward. Not answers, but ways of coping. We, the community, gather around to express our love and our support. We busy ourselves with doing, we busy the mourners with distractions, and we have ritual that insists on indulging our grief, before we start the long slog towards getting back to the demands of life, the needs of the living. Sometimes, like Jacob, we “refuse to be comforted”, and we think we will take our pain down to the grave. But we are resilient, we humans, and we cope. We try to embrace the blessing of life instead of returning to the answerless past. And if we do, then only in our dreams do we revisit our loss and suffer again.