August 28, 2014

Prejudice

I am prejudiced. No doubt about that. My level of prejudice, of course, varies according to the criteria. I am prejudiced in general against all loud-mouthed aggressive human beings. But that is very different to my prejudice against anyone expresses anti-Jewish sentiments. I am prejudiced against people of any color or faith who do not obey the law of the land. I am prejudiced against fanatics and anyone who wants to impose his religion or views on others. To repeat a cliché I am intolerant of intolerance.

Even so, I try very hard to overcome such prejudices when I meet someone, regardless of appearance or loyalty, because I know that one should not judge a book by its cover, a man by his dress (though Shakespeare’s Polonius thinks I should) or a woman by her plastic surgeon. Above all I do not believe in being rude or unkind, and certainly not offensive or aggressive towards people I disagree with and may be prejudiced against. Despite my recognizing certain prejudices, I work hard to ensure they do not affect the way I interact with others until more information either confirms or removes the preconceived mindset. If my prejudice turns out to be valid, then I just walk away.

Prejudice usually means something more than just feeling one wants to avoid certain people. Prejudice has come to involve not just hate-crimes and abuse, but preventing people getting jobs, renting homes, or even entering certain places. In free western countries the law bans such prejudicial actions and behavior. In some countries the law reinforces them. Laws of course cannot control people’s thoughts or choices of company or where they choose to buy a house. Equally so, prejudice does not depend on where we live. Some of the most tolerant human beings I have met live in closed societies and some of the most intolerant live in open ones.

We can think nasty thoughts about others, but in general the law of the land forbids translating such thoughts into actions. Sadly enforcement is weak, almost everywhere. One should not be able to intimidate those one disagrees with though in practice this happens all the time in the so called free Western World and even in Universities supposedly paragons of open intellectual debate.

The current crisis in Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black man (regardless of whether he was a saint or a sinner) was shot dead by white police, illustrates the overlap between prejudice with cause and prejudice without (though I might add that I believe just as much a problem is a society where guns are so tolerated and encouraged). Prejudice against blacks simply because of skin pigmentation is as ridiculous as prejudice against someone because he is ugly or her hair is red. On the other hand, prejudice against people who seem threatening or dangerous is just a protective mechanism. It might just be self-defense.

One of our biggest problems now is a tendency to feel that most if not all Muslims are ill-disposed towards Jews. Even if in the past many Jews had good experiences with their Muslim neighbors. But look at how much hatred and murder there is between Sunni and Shia! Singling out Israel say the apologists is just because of Israel’s actions. But if the issue were just the dead, one would expect equal anger at Muslims killing Muslims. Is it because Israel is seen as a competing culture in the culture wars? Perhaps it is linked to the fact that until relatively recently Muslims were one of the most powerful groups, and they lived almost exclusively under Muslim rulers. Now they see the Imperial West as humiliating them, and Israel is identified with the imperialists (regardless of the fact that most Israelis originated in Muslim lands and identify with Arab culture).

If Muslim anti-Semitism is the major single cause of anti -Semitism around the world, fascism is not dead either. The Jobbik party in Hungary is violently anti-Semitic. So are skinheads in Germany. As is the left--how strange that it identifies with a fundamentalist, anti-humanist, anti-feminist, and anti-egalitarian brand of religion. But then it was a principle in Marxism that you could ally yourself with anyone if it helped your cause.

I grew up in a Britain, where anti-Semitism was common. It was lurking beneath the surface, but it was never as overt, as public or as threatening as it is now. But now even in New York we have seen thugs carrying Palestinian flags attacking Jews. So when I see a skinhead, or when I see a Muslim, should I not now assume the worst until I know differently? Should I not run for cover or cross over to the other side of the street? Or should I rather give humans the benefit of the doubt? And is that really prejudice?

Some of my Muslim correspondents can no longer speak to me civilly. But others still do rationally. Some have confessed that other Muslims, such as ISIS or Assad, are a far bigger danger than Israel, but they are reluctant to stand up against overwhelming public opinion. I know Muslims who do not hate me. But I am really worried that I am being dragged down into a cesspit of prejudice.

The Jewish answer is that although I must defend myself, I should try to judge each individual on his or her own merit. After all, on Rosh Hashanah we quote the Mishna that says that the Almighty evaluates every human being. Not all are found guilty! The Torah tells us to treat the stranger as one of us, even though the environment in which this was said was one of pagan hostility and a clash of cultures. But it is true this only applied where the stranger was willing to accept us and our moral code, not when he wanted to kill us or impose his laws instead.

A similar ambiguity occurs within the Jewish world. We have our full range of those for Judaism and Jews and those against or disaffected. Large numbers of young Jews with no firsthand experience of intolerance, expulsion, or insecurity, or of religious commitment, no longer see the need for a Jewish state or its right to defend itself. And I am very worried by the increasing prejudice I hear and see manifest in our own ranks against Muslims and Christians. “The goyim all hate us.” Any Jew who expresses reservations about Israel is “self-hating”.

Prejudice towards “the other” seems almost to be an evolutionary natural state. The whole point of religious morality is to combat “naturalism”, the animal aspect of our nature, and to try one’s best to elevate the better. If others cannot, we must still try. We are all prejudiced in different ways. We must not let it dictate to us.

There are good people everywhere, and there are thinking, considerate humans even amongst those who we assume are our enemies. We must seek them out and try to make common cause with them, however few, frightened, or battered they may be.

August 21, 2014

Israelis & Palestinians

Let’s start with the obvious.

We are caught up again the violent dance of death between Israel and Palestine. On both sides there are fanatics and politicians who revel in aggressive talk and belligerency. As usual the ordinary person is held hostage by superior forces whether they agree with them or not. And as usual human suffering ensues. Uninformed world opinion takes simplistic sides, as if this were a tragedy that can be blamed entirely on one party or the other.

Shall we play the blame game? The original Jewish sin, some claim, was not the fact of Jews returning to the Holy Land. That had never ceased, though it waned when circumstances made it impractical. No, it was the Zionist desire for a Jewish state. Something granted to others without question. The original Arab sins were those who fought the Jewish presence, incited the Hebron massacre, and refused Abdullah’s vision to share or accept the UN partition.

The second sin was a war the Arab states declared on Israel in 1948 that the Jews dared to win. That was the Arab tragedy, the Nakba. But unlike with any other such conflict, the UN perpetuated it by accepting an armistice but not insisting on a peace treaty and defined borders.

Since then repeated defeats have always resulted in Arab depression, helplessness and the delusion that they might win next time. But there was no imposition of peace or decision on borders because the nations of the world had agendas of their own that let them off the hook.

The rise of bloodcurdling, throat-slitting Jihadi fanatics right across the Arab world has led to genuine fear that concessions would only open the doors to an ISIS or al-Qaeda 15 kilometers from Ben Gurion Airport. This fear has led to Israeli isolationism, the Masada complex, and a sense that no matter what they did they would never be able to rely on anyone else for their security. What we are seeing around the Middle East now only reinforces this survival instinct. But fear is a limiting pathology.

After the 1967 war, the Arabs on the West Bank welcomed the Israelis for freeing them from Hashemite sovereignty. But then the Israelis squandered that goodwill and subjected the West Bank to Israeli occupation. Does it matter that after 1967 the Arab world refused to negotiate? Which side was to blame? Only one, or both? But if no negotiations have resolved this issue over the past seventy years, what crazy logic lays all the blame at one door? If the most popular voice is one that calls for Israel’s total destruction, why should Israel not take such threats seriously and put its own safety first?

Does it matter that Israel decided to settle the West Bank? Does it make sense for Israel to insist on demilitarization? Yes, it does. But this doesn’t mean it cannot take steps to rethink the occupation. The stalemate is one of ongoing lukewarm war. One side feeling weak and unloved wants to use violence as a tool of change. The other uses violence as a tool of continuity.

There are insecurities on both sides; the fear of rockets if Hamas gains power in the West Bank (tunnels under the Knesset?); the awareness of the older Israeli generation that experienced homelessness and insecurity never to be without a safety net; the Palestinian desire to be in charge of its own destiny, and the desire of the refugees not go on being dependent on charity and used as pawns. There seems to me no way this is going to be resolved. The antagonism of the Muslim world, the Left, and the anti-Semites only strengthen a resolve not to take risks by making concessions.

This is not an Imperialist one, where interlopers come in, impose themselves, and then retreat. There is no going back to Poland, Ukraine, Ethiopia, or Iraq. Israel is a Jewish homeland in which there are non-Jewish inhabitants with rights and protections.

Genuine peace will require a Palestinian state to incorporate Jews as much as Israel does Arabs, Palestinian or other. And refugees will have to be compensated. But Palestinian refugees will no more come back to a Jewish state than Jewish refugees would want to go back to a Muslim state. Everyone knows this but still there is no agreement.

Any solution is is far, far away. I doubt it will be in my lifetime. So what do we do?

A wise Israeli government would find ways to make life more tolerable for Palestinians in Israel and on the West Bank. Greater freedom and investment (free from Fatah corruption) would strengthen moderate opinion. It will take generations until the bitter anti-Semitism of the Arab world will be modulated. But a start must be made.

So after all this negative introduction, I want to sing the praises of efforts and attempts to make life better now, in the present, without waiting for the politicians to find a solution.

The trouble with the media is that bad news is news, and good news is boring. Pushing old ladies off buses gets more coverage than helping old ladies on to buses.

We read a lot about nationalist extremists, street mobs, hashtag psychotics. But in Israel there is a great deal of bridge building--of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who try their best to reach out to try to heal.

Israel has a very powerful secular, left-wing population, many of whom go to extremes to counteract the Right or to fight for civil rights and justice. But just as many use interpersonal channels to try to achieve good. I know of large numbers of academics, clerics, professionals, and ordinary human beings across the spectrum who feel the pain and want to try to heal it. They know this is too important to be left up to politicians. There are examples too on the Palestinian side. I only wish there were more.

I am not going to take up time singing the praises or the limitations of each one of these randomly picked examples (there are many and possibly worthier), and I welcome suggestions that I will disseminate later. If you really care about the situation and want to try to do something about it, check these sites out and see which ones might appeal to you:

Hand In Hand

The Citizens' Accord Forum between Jews & Arabs in Israel

Merchavim

The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus

The Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development

Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations

The Jerusalem Intercultural Center

One Voice

Soccer Stars for Peace
(Also see this YNET article.)

Palestine-Israel Journal

Save a Child's Heart

And here’s a book (on Kindle too) by an Israeli Arab friend of mine, Dr. Maher Dabbah: A Promising Middle East

You won’t all agree with some of my suggestions but it’s up to you to do due diligence. Even if you just pick one, you can say you are doing something, however small, to try to make a bad situation better.

There are good caring people on both sides, and in the end that’s going to be the better way of ensuring long-term peace, if not in our lifetime then at least for our children. Let us not leave it up to the extremists.

August 14, 2014

The Land of Israel

The Jewish attitude to the Land of Israel is completely missing from the current mood of antagonism in both Western and Muslim society to Jewish history and culture. The Sabbatical year of 5775, which starts this Rosh Hashana, illustrates the depth and complexity of the issue.

Every seven years, says the Bible, one must leave one’s fields and orchards fallow and not cultivate plants, vegetables and fruit. No reason is given in the Bible. One can guess it was an agricultural preservative system, like the rotation of crops that began in the Middle East some 6,000 years ago. But one could equally argue it was an opportunity for national education, to refresh and reinforce one’s connection with Torah.

Nachmanides (1194-1270), living in Catalonia, said in his Biblical commentary that all Biblical laws were intended primarily to be adhered to in the Land of Israel. Beyond its borders, in exile, we keep them so as not to forget them, so that if we were ever able to reestablish a Jewish community in Israel we would know what to do and how. But everyone agrees the laws of Shmitah only apply within the inhabited Biblical boundaries. Not surprisingly, there is much debate as to whether the laws of Shmitah still apply, whether they depend on the defunct institution of the Jubilee, are of Torah obligation or now simply rabbinic, to keep the memory alive. So just think, for 3,000 years the actual land has been part of our psyche and our law.

Like many Biblical laws that became impractical or anachronistic, the rabbis found ways to accommodate them to new conditions. The Shmitah also required cancelling all debts. What was a humanitarian act in early times, lending to the poor, became unworkable in more advanced commercial societies, so Hillel found a way of transferring the loans to the courts. As only personal loans were released, this way the loan remained “on the books.”

You might wonder why he didn’t just cancel the law altogether. It has always been a principle that we do not eradicate a law altogether. Even if unworkable in its principles, it remains an expression of a religious ideal. We rather try (at least the few adventurous and strong ones amongst our leaders) to find a way round it while preserving the concept. Times change, human society advances in cycles, and what was thought to be modern at one moment becomes medieval at another. Thousands of years later, we have now adopted the idea of an intellectual sabbatical. Even crop rotation is coming back into organic fashion. How shortsighted we would look now if we had written the law out altogether.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the land of Israel. When settlers began to arrive in the nineteenth century, the religious ones amongst them could not survive if they had had to leave their lands fallow and wait two years for another crop. The great Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor adapted a well tried device for getting round the law. Sell it notionally to a non-Jew and buy it back at the end of the year. Rather like the device on Passover for preserving large stocks of Chametz in grains or alcohol by selling it, and then buying it back afterwards. It looks like fiddle and it is. But at least the practical link between religion and the land was preserved. As the Jewish presence grew and agriculture flourished, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rav Kook, made this the policy of the rabbinate, and it became automatic for many years. As with many such laws, individuals found other ways of circumventing it. One bought produce from Arabs. Then one imported it from Cyprus, and more recently Israeli enterprise and innovation in hydroponics has helped meet the need.

Times change. Once only the few religious Kibbutzim and Moshavim kept the Shmitah and relied on the fictional sale. The Charedi world does not accept the rabbinate loophole. More and more individuals in Israel see the Shmitah as a way of asserting their new piety and/or their ancient bond with the Promised Land. As one would expect, asking for financial support has now become a fundraising tool to help more people keep the rigors of these ancient laws. And why not, if modern methods and charity make it achievable? (Although feeding the poor seems to me to be a priority.)

But it is good in another way. As our connection to the land is being disavowed and delegitimized, it is a powerful reinforcement, to ourselves at least, that this is a land we care for and have loved for thousands of years. This, I insist, does not mean it cannot be shared as it often was.

Dr. Margaret Brearley, a medieval historian and former advisor to several Archbishops of Canterbury, has shown the difference between Jewish and Christian poems at the time of the Crusades in her research about the Holy Land. To the Crusaders it was an abstraction, a theological mission into alien territory. Jerusalem was a town somewhere beyond the sea. To the Jews it was the dust, the boulders, and the ruins that made the land not an abstraction but a reality, a place that existed in this world, not some other. After 2,000 years of such dreaming, from long before lslam was invented, it is hardly surprising that we Jews did not want a quiet plot in Africa or the Russian steppes. Instead we wanted to return to our ancient land. For that is what our religion is based on regardless of how well or otherwise we have adapted to exile.

August 07, 2014

Who is right to hate us?

The Palestinian conflict and the way it is perceived throughout Europe and in parts of the USA has put paid to this false messiah of normality once and for all. Even normal, secular, music-loving, technologically self-sufficient Jews are regarded as evil, in league with the devil.

No humane human being can possibly be immune to children dying. But hold on. Where are most children being killed in the world at this moment and by whom? In Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Chechnya, China, Indonesia, and Myanmar--Muslim children all, hundreds of thousands in recent years. Yet there have been no calls for boycotts, no calls to kill the murderers, no Human Rights condemnations.

jew If I fire a rocket aimed at a human civilian target, and it fails to explode or is intercepted, am I not still guilty of intent? And if the world thinks that deserves no condemnation, is not the world crazy or sick?

I address this to my Muslim friends. If we were to concede that Israel was entirely to blame for the collapse of the peace talks, was wrong to attack Gaza, why can we not agree that Gaza was wrong to attack Israel? And if Israel was wrong to attack areas where there were civilians, was not Hamas wrong to fire rockets from schools, hospitals, and homes? Are we going to use population density as an argument for not hitting back if attacked? Who previously ever did? There is no objectivity here. Because Jews are whipping boys for any sick culture in decline, for any dictator clinging to power who needs a scapegoat, or for politicians desperate for votes. Israel, Zionism is now an excuse for attacking Jews, not for accepting them. We are heavily outnumbered. But so what?

In a way we must be grateful to Hamas for clarifying things. The fact is that there is no practical difference between most Zionists and most Jews anymore. “Kill the Jews” is now acceptable language across the globe. The myth of being anti-Zionist but not anti-Jewish is blown. And, yes, there always have been Jews who were anti-Jew. There were Jews who supported Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. There are some deluded religious Jews who think they will have a better life under the Hezbollah or Iran. There are Jews who believe in other religions. Jews support every political party across the spectrum. Jews are “the same as everyone else, only more so”. But nothing reinforces us Jews more than a sense that we are being treated unjustly. This whole issue, this whole scenario, is an issue of loyalty.

Zionism, or nationalism, or just wanting a refuge from hatred has united Jews more than any other ideology. We have always been a divided, fractious people. We certainly are not agreed today about the State of Israel, its political leadership, or its direction. We are divided socially between rich and poor, between countries of origin, and degrees of observance. Yet for all that, the vast majority want a homeland and are willing either to fight for it or support it.

So if we rally round our own, why would we not expect most Muslims to rally round other Muslims and care about their suffering, even if their own political leaders are responsible for it? If we try to ignore our own fanatics, why shouldn’t they? Is this conflict a matter of logic? No, it’s a matter of conflicting loyalties. Why are we so surprised? Except that they seem to care less about Muslims killing Muslims than they do about Jews killing Muslims, not for ideology, just in self defense.

I hate seeing children suffer. I hate seeing anyone killed. No matter what the cause. I cannot even bear to watch casualties on TV. I find war horrific, terrible, and to be avoided at almost all costs. But not at all costs. If I fear an existential threat (just imagine the toll if we had not had the Dome), my religion demands of me I respond, and my loyalty to my people demands of me I support them. If “the world” is against my people, why wouldn’t I want to support them? No one else will. All the more so if the world of our opponents is one filled with barbaric, oppressive extremism. Why shouldn’t one want reassurances and demilitarization before laying down one’s guard?

And who is refusing ceasefire extensions? Hamas. Because the only way they have of garnering support and money is by exaggerating their suffering. The only way the millionaire political leadership, living underground in its luxury shelters, has of growing richer on the backs and bodies of its own populace is by showing more fake photos of tragedies it has created for its own ends.

There are two kinds of enmity: the enmity of a cause one is passionately committed to, and the enmity of illogical prejudice. The first is understandable. The second is dishonest.

Yet my argument is not with Muslims who support Muslims. Of course they want what they want, and they will not give up before they get it any more than Israel will. I understand why Muslims want the Jews out of the Middle East, out of Dar al-Islam.

I can understand those who accuse Israel of not doing more for peace. But I cannot sympathize with neo-Nazis or with Jews who want to see the end of a secure homeland, or with anyone else who does. Neither do I understand a “turn the other cheek” mentality that says Israel should just suffer and bear bombs and missiles regardless. And I certainly don’t understand how liberal intellectuals can ally themselves with fundamentalists who would deny freedom and choice to any people unfortunate enough to be ruled by them.

Yet this irrational hatred is, ironically, beneficial, for it forces us to think about priorities and make choices. It actually helps us. The more we are attacked, demeaned, or delegitimized, the more we identify and the stronger we get. We are “a nation that dwells alone”. We are outliers. And it is precisely because we neither accept other religious myths nor abandon our individuality that we find ourselves so unpopular. But rather survival than popularity. If we few millions and our allies do not stand up for us, who will?

I hear the mantra that young American Jews no longer support Israel. I am not surprised. They have no experience of the helplessness in the face of Nazis and world abandonment. Most of them are Jewishly ignorant and uncommitted. Of course they do not stand by a Jewish homeland. They are who they are. But you go anywhere in the US to religious communities and schools and you will see dynamic committed support, if anything too blind. Because it is not based on anything but passionate loyalty. We have always relied on quality not quantity.

But I know full well that there is another truth. Peace comes only when both sides want it badly enough. If you have two punch-drunk boxers, only the referee can separate them. It seems there is no referee anyone trusts. I pray for peace, but sadly at this moment I neither trust the process nor the players. We are still only in the early rounds. This is a long battle. To adapt an old adage, a Chinese Emperor was once asked if he would like to be loved by all his subjects. He replied “No! Loved by the good ones, but hated by the bad ones.” It depends on which side you are on. I know where I stand.