February 26, 2015

Purim or Munich?

Purim is this coming week. It's a story that can be read as being about an ineffectual, drunken leader, a disaster just waiting to happen. Here is a king manipulated by his advisors into making disastrous decisions. Weakness always allows either dangerous, proactive demagogues to emerge or self-interested vipers to step into the vacuum. This is a lesson the USA is having to learn all over again.

“Munich” has many associations. The Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 was when Hitler failed in his first attempt to gain power. The PLO massacred Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. But in between was the infamous 1938 conference at which Britain sacrificed Czechoslovakia in the hope that it would bring peace. Hitler saw this as weakness and went on to invade Poland and Russia. Britain, instead of avoiding a small war, got dragged into a far wider and nastier one.

Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister at the time, will forever be remembered for his smug grin as he waved a piece of paper on his return from Munich declaring “peace for our time”. This was the prime example of appeasement. Appeasement is the Achilles heel of naïve, fainthearted liberals and social democrats. Much of the British aristocracy (as the American plutocracy) did not want to go to war. They thought Hitler was a good “chappie”. Even King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were enamored. The students of Oxford University voted not to fight for King and Country. Cambridge University provided a whole network of lethal Soviet spies because they believed Russia’s Marxist claptrap would make the world a better place.

America saved Europe. Instead of gratitude, it was resented and excoriated as an aggressive bully. At least its nuclear threat gave Europe the longest stretch of peace it had in centuries. But now the USA is going through precisely the same appeasement mindset that Britain did 80 years ago.

I was brought up and educated in that post-war liberal mindset, in the warm, fuzzy belief that humans were basically reasonable and utilitarian. Socialism would help resolve all social difficulties. Normal men and women would always choose the moderate course over the extreme. Negotiations would always produce results, whereas violence and aggression never could. Universal values would always trump vested nationalist interests, and if we made love enough we could always avoid war. Mine was the generation of Sartre, Joan Baez, John Lennon, and all the other talented ingénues. My default position was left wing.

But reality, the need to make a living, the realization that people did not behave rationally and would not necessarily love you if you tried to be nice, soon set in. The world was a more complicated, nuanced place than the hippies believed. Nasty President Johnson achieved a lot more by being tough than others did by being nice.

History might never exactly repeat itself, but certain cycles do indeed keep on recurring. After eras of American imperialism, fighting dirty wars all round the world in its struggle against communism, the USA has had a very mixed record of both positive intervention and incompetence. Bush senior intervened to save Kuwait. Clinton intervened to stop Serbia (but not Rwanda). Meanwhile both Iraq and Afghanistan, after initial military victories, have remained failed, corrupt terror-ridden states, for all the billions wasted on them.

The record of current liberal America is pathetic. The administration seems to think, in abstract liberal fashion, that if you talk sweetly, are conciliatory, and spend money, this will win friends, and people will start loving you. The Obama administration has now given us a sequence of disastrous policies (or lack of them) from Libya to Syria, from ISIL to Pakistan, from Cairo to Riyadh via Teheran. And it’s not just with failed Muslim states.

Russia grabs Crimea. No, says the USA you can’t. Russia arms rebels in Western Ukraine; they down a passenger jet using Russian missiles; they break every truce and are pushing on because we know they want a land passage into Crimea from Russia proper. NATO and America’s reaction? No weapons to help Ukraine protect itself. Only hot air and ineffectual sanctions that the Russians have already found ways around.

And why is Putin feeling so confident? Because Obama couldn’t stand up to him in Syria. Would not arm moderate rebels while there were a few still left. Still won’t arm the Kurds for fear of offending Turkey (who think nothing of insulting him) or being accused of colluding in the breakup of the artificial cobbled state called Iraq. All of which allowed ISIL to thrive and take Mosul. Now that he realizes they are not Little Leaguers, he thinks he can defeat then without boots on the ground, relying on an already discredited Iraqi army or Sunni tribes who are closer to ISIL than they are to the Iraqi Shia.

I would not intervene whatsoever in the Middle East. Let them sort their own differences out. It’s as much a fundamentalist, messianic, religious sectarian battle as a political one. The Imperialist powers made a hash of it. Now let the cards fall where they may. America doesn’t need Saudi oil any longer, and its bigger challenges lie much further to the east.

Terror from Islamic fanatics is a threat, but America and the rest of the free world should focus resources on protecting themselves within their own borders, not venturing into alien territory and cultures it does not understand in the vain and arrogant hope of changing them. Let the dysfunctional Middle East destroy itself or else wake up to the fact that blaming Israel is no way to build a just society. Using scapegoats is always a recipe for failure.

The Liberal agenda refuses to see things as they are, choosing instead to see things as they would like them to be. They still believe Achashverosh’s descendants in Teheran are negotiating in good faith. It might not be a drunken fog, but it's a fog nevertheless. We all have our dreams and ideals. But we also need to be realistic and practical. In the end self-defense is always best. Nowadays no ally can trust America to come its aid.

Neville Obama may not be drunk with wine, but he is certainly intoxicated with his own dogmas.

Happy Purim.

February 19, 2015


I have just seen a film called Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, an Israeli-French production. It is a most offensive film depicting a cartoon of Judaism. An unhappy wife, mother of four children, is desperate to escape a loveless marriage in which her Moroccan-Israeli husband adamantly refuses either to understand her unhappiness or to grant her a Get. He is simply and stubbornly insensitive to her human needs and cannot understand what she is going through. Her agony extends over a five-year period in which she has to face caricatures of hardline rabbis, hypocritical Moroccan neighbors and relatives, two-faced friends and incompetent legal experts. It is a grotesque cast of Fellini-like unsympathetic freaks.

Now I know better than most other people the limitations of Jewish divorce law, the male chauvinism of many rabbis, the incompetence of courts, and the abuses of the judiciary, wherever they are. I have consistently campaigned over the years for changes in attitude and the application of Jewish law within the bounds of the system. But to see such a one-sided distortion, containing factual errors, ignoring all the good that is done and offering the world a picture of traditional Judaism that is primitive and barbaric, simply made my heart sink and my hackles rise.

I have often written about the problems of the Agunah, a woman constrained under the law because a husband or brother-in-law refuses to release her to remarry through motives of blackmail or spite. Sometimes husbands have disappeared, either intentionally trying to escape their obligations or through accidents or catastrophes. Thankfully, there are not as many cases as people think, but even if we were dealing with only one and the rabbis failed to solve it using Jewish law I would still be offended and my sense of religious justice insulted.

Whatever my criticisms, most rabbis in Israel and abroad do a fair, sensitive, and reasonable job ensuring that women get their bills of divorce without blackmail or delay. Most Dayanim (judges) who sit on Jewish courts are humane, caring men. This goes for Ashkenazim and Sephardim (in this film the directors, in their ignorance, got terribly mixed up between the two). But there are sadly exceptions and if there is just one court, one rabbi, one judge who acts like a boor in the face of a woman in distress, or if there is one sector of the Jewish world that still clings to male domination and expects female submission, I desperately want it to be challenged and pressure to be brought to stop this betrayal of Jewish moral values.

Nevertheless, upset as I am by this distorted picture of my religion and this film that I wouldn't give tuppence for, in a way I am glad it is on general release. This is precisely why I value the freedom of the free world. Because we can go public, there can be redress. Because we can hold to ridicule the hypocrisies of those religious authorities who fail, we have a chance of getting them to see another point of view. If we lose that right, we have lost freedom.

Having been thus offended, if what happens all around us seems to work and if I want to get people to recognize how offended I am, I should now go out and kill someone and firebomb a film studio to make my point, in the hope that people will say, “There, there poor Jeremy, we must not offend you or your religion. So we will say this is not a film about Judaism, but rather about black-bearded men who behave badly. And we will stop showing the film and withdraw it from public distribution in order to protect everyone concerned from your violent reaction.” You can see where I am going with this.

Why is it that the free world seems impervious to insulting Judaism or Christianity, but bridles at anything that might insult Muslims? Meanwhile, many Imams in Islamic societies and communities, the source of so much anti-Semitism are not only refusing to cleanse their own stables but continue to heap abuse on Jews.

Whatever our obligations to immigrants of other religions, and they are and must be broad and supportive, one thing we must not compromise is our freedom to criticize and to hold to ridicule. This of course is very different to abuse and inciting hatred. That is an integral part of our civilization and culture that men like Voltaire, Franklin, and Zola fought for. There is a difference between insulting people and insulting gross acts of violence and terror and their sources. But what is at the root of this issue is the demand of one religion that it be treated as exceptional.

This is why we must fight any attempt to bring back blasphemy laws, because they will be used to prevent exposing the crimes of religious leaders who betray our moral values, just as libel laws are used to protect corrupt businessmen and politicians. Being publicly ridiculed by talk show hosts and comedians is the only safeguard we have against financial corruption and religious fanaticism imposing itself upon us all.

Liberalism, too, is a religion that must be held to ridicule. The pathetic cowardice of those who argue that using euphemisms will help solve a problem is precisely the kind of appeasement that has brought Europe to its present state of confusion. If you tolerate preachers continually preaching hatred against a group in society because you do not wish to label them, you must expect something to happen. And if you do nothing you become a partner in the crime. The more one gives in to bullies, the more one will be bullied. I hear pundits say that America, unlike Europe, in not publishing offensive cartoons has found a balance between freedom of speech and offensive speech. That's hogwash. It is Liberal hypocrisy and, frankly, defeatism.

I believe our society requires that we hold up to ridicule all religions and all ideologies when their members betray their ideals. Because that is often the only way to get a reaction, other than retreating behind closed doors. I do not object if you call a Chasid who steals a “Jewish thief” because in his dress he is clearly identifying himself as Jewish by religion, yet he is stealing. A rabbi who abuses his position is a “rabbinical abuser”. That describes him to a tee. And if someone uses Islam or the Koran as a reason to kill, he is a Muslim killer. Morality hates hypocrisy, no matter where it comes from. If there are those who fear prejudice and hatred, let them strive to remove the beams from their eyes too.

I want peace and tolerance and freedom. But if we refuse to be honest with ourselves, there is not a chance. I knew in advance I would hate this film. But I went because I thought it would do my soul good and reinforce my sense of what justice should look like.

February 12, 2015


According to the Bible, before the world was created there was chaos, Tohu VaVohu. However, it was out of chaos that something positive emerged. I am a fan of chaos. The alternative to chaos is order. But too often order is worse. Human life constantly shuttles between these two, on a personal and on a national level. Jewish life, in particular, has always been thus. But I believe we should welcome it. This state can be creative. It can throw up all kinds of new possibilities. Maybe we need to be reminded every now and then, as now, of what chaos is like.

In Judaism there are many conflicting ideologies and social groups that, by definition, are all but impossible to reconcile. Reform Jews have split from the mainstream by deciding to adopt patrilineal descent to define Jewish religious identity. Many Ultra Orthodox sects have split by making identity depend on exclusive dress and standards of practice that reject modernity and go way beyond mainstream Jewish law.

We are at odds with ourselves and at odds with much of the world. For some this alienation is religious, and for some it is political. In the Diaspora we can read, say, the New York Times, and not a day goes by without an article critical and demeaning of Israel and Jews. We can hear news and media losing no opportunity to blame Jews and Israel, themselves, for the hatred directed towards them. We do suffer demonization. Israel faces de-legitimization, from without and within. According to Pew Foundation many young Jewish Americans do not identify either with Judaism or Israel. I no longer expect the left wing to accept Israel’s right to exist any more than I expect Muslims in the Middle East to accept Israel’s right to exist. And I realize we few 14 million or so are surrounded by billions of enemies. Doesn’t this scare me? How long can so few, however talented, however determined, however brave and convinced of the rightness of their cause, hope to survive against billions?

I do not believe for one second that if Israel were to disappear tomorrow we would be any more loved or respected. And I do not believe for one minute that anything would change if Israel were to become the most ethical, caring, uncorrupt, nonviolent state in the world tomorrow. At the same time, I am depressed by the negative aspects of Israeli and Jewish society, the gap between the rich and poor, between communities, religions, and races (even if they are no worse than every other polity or state or religion or people). Yes, I do expect them to be better. Yet we can also find sites and media that are able to put Israel in perspective in relation to other states. I am elated and impressed by Israel’s achievements despite the countervailing winds. Dammit, why else would Somali refugees avoid their own Muslim states to try for refuge in a Jewish one?

The political landscape of America is changing. Eighty percent of Jews used to vote Democrat. Now it’s reducing rapidly. Jewish life in the USA used to be dominated by Reform Judaism; now the Orthodox are taking over. Obama and most Democrats are completely out of sympathy with Israel. Academia is resolutely anti-Zionist, read anti-Israel, read anti-Jewish-self-determination. Russia and China still vote against Israel at the UN. But we can also hear those who stand up for our right to exist unmolested, be we Jews or Israelis.

India is moving in our direction. While Turkish Islamic leaders spew hatred we still trade, and we help the Kurds. As ISIL decapitates and burns within miles of Israel’s borders, Israel herself is increasingly self-sufficient in gas, oil, and water, not to mention technology. And frankly Judaism has never been stronger in terms of people, learning and power for two thousand years. Do we look at the cup half empty or half full?

Chaos is everywhere. One minute Russia is down, the next it is invading other countries, and no one can stop it. Assad of Syria is the enemy; then he’s the ally. One day the EU is a powerful economic entity, and the next it is on its knees and fragmenting. The USA is the world’s policeman at one stage, and then it cannot take a stand on anything. Once Japan ruled the east; now it is China. Six months ago oil was a $100 a barrel and now it is $50. The Swiss franc goes wild. The Chinese Yuan is nervous.

Nothing stays the same. History does not end. Humans remain the complex organisms they were created to be or evolved into, whichever theory you prefer.

We have always dealt with shifting powers and alliances. Chaos is our natural state. Where are the great communities of a thousand years ago, Babylon, Spain, Egypt, Southern Italy? Others have taken their place. We never know for certain who will be our friends, who our allies. But as Mordechai said to Esther two-and-a-half thousand years ago, “If you don't act now, salvation for the people will come from somewhere else, even if you perish.” Salvation always comes, from the unlikeliest quarters. Though I do believe we need to work very hard at it!

Some focus on the negatives. I do not for one minute suggest it's all doom and gloom. But it is challenging. Those who put their Jewishness first, wherever they are, are always different. But they are the ones who step up! We have usually found a way of turning the negative into the positive. And when within a state of chaos or uncertainty we withdraw into those we think we can trust because they share our fate; we cluster into small subsections and coteries for reassurance but also for regeneration.

In conditions of turbulence and flux one looks for points of refuge, rocks to cling to, priorities. Just as in the world at large the buzz word is knowledge. Within our world that word is commitment. What is my rock? It is my people. (Judaism is a people, not just a religion.) That means supporting them wherever they may be. It is not that I cannot see our faults and failures. But it is no different than a mother who loves her son regardless of what he has done. There are billions to care about other religions, other peoples. Why shouldn’t I give priority to mine?

The question really is how much one cares. It is not in what way you show your commitment, whether it is religious or social or secular, but how committed ARE you? We will survive. When the floodwaters rise, I want to be with the committed, with the faithful, not with those who swim with fashionable tides. We need chaos. It strengthens us. It always has. Within chaos the small little atoms of cohesion survive to build another world.

I am not saying we must ignore, turn blind eyes or refuse to react. We should never let evil go un-reacted-to. But at the same time we need to focus on the positive not on the negative. We will feel better for it too.

February 05, 2015

Brawl in Ponevezh

“A brawl erupted at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, where a prominent rabbi, Shmuel Markovitz, was physically assaulted by a student of a rival faction, sparking the violent confrontation between Rav Markovitz’s students, who refer to themselves as 'the Mehablim', a Hebrew word meaning terrorists or saboteurs, then stormed the yeshiva dormitories of their long-time rivals, 'the Sonim', or 'the haters'. The students vandalized dorm rooms and hurled furniture at one another, and a canister of tear gas was released in the compound.

"The two groups support rival rabbis for the yeshiva’s leadership. One, Rav Markovitz, who was assaulted at the start of the melee, is married to the founder’s granddaughter; the other Rav Eliezer Kahaneman is the founder’s grandson. Conflict has raged between their supporters since the 1990s.

"Ambulance workers said dozens of people were injured and 13 were hospitalized for tear gas inhalation. Last Thursday police arrested 30 of the yeshiva’s students for provoking and participating in the battle."

Times of Israel, February 2, 2015
Some background. Amongst the many and significant yeshivas (post-high-school theological colleges) in Israel, three stand above the rest and effectively dominate the non-Chasidic, Lithuanian Charedi world, both in size and in reputation. They are Chevron, Mir, and Ponevezh. Each has thousands of students from around the Jewish world. Their students devote themselves exclusively to studying Talmud and classical Jewish sources. They also emphasize (or have in the past) “Mussar”, a moral movement founded by Rav Israel Salanter to add an ethical and human dimension to the academic study of the Talmud and its commentators. Their role call of alumni makes them the Oxbridge or the Ivy League of the religious world.

Chevron was started in Hebron, Palestine in 1924, with alumni from Slabodka. Twenty-four of its students were massacred by Arabs in 1929, and its building was sacked. It moved to Geulah, in Jerusalem, and became the yeshiva of the yishuv, of the nascent Jewish state. Most of the early Israeli rabbinate were graduates, and alone of the great yeshivas, it supported the state. After the Second World War, the remnant of the Eastern European yeshivas started to relocate to Israel. Mir went from Lithuania, via Shanghai, to Jerusalem, and the late Rav Yosef Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav back in Lithuania, established Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.

During the 40s and 50s, Chevron was dominant. But slowly Ponevezh began to expand and grow. I first met Rav Kahaneman when he came to London to raise funds and stayed at my aunt and uncle Winegarten’s home in Norrice Lea. He was an impressive, charismatic man who, whenever he was asked why he decided to set up a yeshiva in such a small, unimportant settlement, replied, “I may be dreaming, but that doesn’t mean I am sleeping.” Rav Kahaneman invited the magisterial moral leader, Rav Dessler (with whom my father had studied), to join him, and other Torah giants too. As Ponevezh grew, so too did Bnei Brak into the vibrant, fiercely Orthodox city it is today, where both Lithuanian and Chasidic rabbis vie for power and control. Mir at that time was still a small institution in Jerusalem with a few hundred, mainly married, older students. Now of course it is several thousand strong.

Many of the early heads of Mir, Be'er Ya'akov, Slobodka, and Ponevezh had been contemporaries of my father at Mir in Lithuania. So when I first arrived in Israel to study in 1958, I was helped immensely by this old network which opened doors to me that otherwise would have been closed. Among them, Rav Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh, Rav Moshe Shapiro of Be'er Ya'akov, and the Finkels of Mir all had fond memories of my father, and this certainly helped when it came to getting my rabbinical ordination from them.

Ponevezh, however, was the up-and-coming magnet that attracted the elite students (other than, possibly, Brisk). Legend has it that one day Rav Kahaneman was sitting at a wedding next to Rav Chatzkel Sarna of Chevron, and Rav Sarna asked Rav Kahaneman why it was that his yeshiva had lost its lead, whereas Rav Kahaneman’s was growing exponentially. Rav Kahaneman is said to have answered that in Chevron the daughters of the Rosh Yeshiva decided who would be the Rosh Yeshivas (sons-in-law could expect automatic preferment) whereas in Ponevezh Rav Kahaneman himself made the decisions based on merit. He thought he was a better judge. Nepotism was already well imbedded. Nowadays all the big yeshivas are oligarchies, and either sons or sons-in-law vie for the top positions, and, with a few notable exceptions, intellectual or moral greatness are rarely the winners.

After the Six Day War, large numbers of students turned the trickle into a tidal wave of students from outside Israel. This brought serious financial support to the yeshivas. Then a change in Israeli politics that brought the more religious-friendly Herut party to power increased the funding, and the yeshiva population exploded from hundreds to thousands. Suddenly they became huge financial institutions with big budgets and, as with Chassidic dynasties, the new generation began to fight for control and power.

If you follow Charedi life, you know about the struggles that have led to splits, rivalries and, in the case of the wealthiest of them all, the Satmar Chasidim, a fissure between Reb Aharon and Reb Zalman, the two sons of the previous Rebbe. Sadly, such splits are now almost universal, both in Israel and the USA, and to make matters worse the growing number of hormonally suppressed young men who do not have sport as a physical outlet have started to use intra-religious territorial disputes as a way of letting off steam.

What were once institutions admired for their learning and their spirituality are now places where fights erupt regularly, over either politics or succession. In Jerusalem last summer, the elections for mayor pitted two competing “Great Rabbis” against each other. Their yeshiva student supporters enjoyed their summer vacation beating each other up and assaulting venerable rabbis. Now in Ponevezh, fighting over succession has become a stain on the Charedi world for tolerating such infighting and rival gangs. Of course they are not nearly as violent as the gangs of Chicago and LA, but they are disturbing. You will hear apologists tell you that these are the exceptions. That’s not true. They are symptoms of an attitude already prevalent.

If a major part of our religious world is turning to violence and aggression to settle its disputes now, I fear greatly for our future when they grow up and take control. There is already too much aggression on the streets of Bet Shemesh, on buses in Jerusalem, and now on airplanes over mixed seating. I wonder why we have allowed our religion to be hijacked by bullies.

Unless the leadership does something now, and acts instead of pretending it's an exception, it will be too late, and the moral grandeur and glory of Torah will be dragged through the dirt.

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