December 29, 2016

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334

Obama’s groundbreaking abstention on a resolution refusing to accept any change to the 1949 armistice lines, and Kerry’s one sided rant against Israel have revealed the fault lines, in the USA and amongst Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, on what Israel means and whether Israel deserves to be supported. Is it an awkward impediment or a a moral, existential necessity? I am worried.

Everywhere, appeasement, the favored policy of Obama, has manifestly failed. It will prolong the conflict and cause more casualties. On paper, motion 2334 says nothing new. Even on settlements it still concedes that the issue must be settled by negotiations. But it is the context that betrays a troubling intent, as does America’s abstention instead of veto and even more so Kerry’s position that Israel alone is to blame.

I will concede that Netanyahu and more so his allies have repeatedly snubbed the US. They have been obstructive. They have their lines in the sand; security, land swaps and Jerusalem. But equally the Palestinians have their lines in the sand; return of refugees to pre-48 land, no Jews allowed to live in their State and Jerusalem. How Kerry can say that only Israel is causing difficulties beggars logic and integrity.

I hate referring to the Holocaust. It ought to have no bearing on the right of Jews to secure autonomy, despite Obama implying just that in his Cairo speech. The desire to return to the Jews’ ancestral homeland predates the Holocaust by thousands of years. When, as the Book of Psalms says, “We sat by the waters of Babylon and wept as we remembered Zion,” the world was a very different place. There was no Christianity then, no Islam to claim that they had displaced us and made us a redundant fossil. There was no United Nations to deny us any historical connection with the land. No United Nations dominated by ideological closed shops, competing power blocks, and vested interests to focus almost entirely on Israel as the only, the sole issue that unites them all.

What the Holocaust means to me is that the world does not care what happens to Jews, that we are “selected” for special ignominy. This is what the UN means to me, too. There is no other country about which so many states can publicly declare their aim and desire to see it destroyed as Israel. And the UN is a forum that encourages those hatemongers.

What this does to a person’s psychology is to reinforce alienation and the refusal to even consider negotiating with those who want to see a Jewish state wiped off the map, regardless of how they phrase or disguise their real motives and aims.

When I first saw pictures of the Holocaust, as a child, I wondered why people hated us so much. Why was I hated just for being a Jew? And why did almost all the rest of the world neither act to help us nor care what happened to us? I know what that did to me. It encouraged and fertilized an arrogance that said, “I just do not care what you think. I am going to survive.” But to link Obama to the Nazis is as childish and offensive as it is plain wrong. Pray tell me, which Jews he has murdered? Sadly, we Jews do not lack idiots any more than any other group does.

The UN probably thinks it is being fair—calling on Palestinians to cease provocation and encouragement of violence and hatred, and calling on Israel to withdraw. But they are not fair, because they ( as well as Kerry) are not insisting that both parties sit down together and talk face to face. I do not agree with most of the settlement policies. But by focusing on settlements, they are simply aiding Palestinian reluctance to negotiate. Had the Palestinians negotiated thirty, twenty, or ten years ago, most settlements would never have been built. The sad fact is that the longer there are no talks, the more settlements will be built, because this has now become a bargaining tool on both sides. Meanwhile Europe, the UN, and now Obama refuse to insist on both sides sitting down together. The UN, in other words, is encouraging war. The argument that Israel, being stronger, should make more concessions would only be legitimate if the other side showed some willingness too.

I feel so sorry for individual Palestinians whom I know and admire who have suffered—even if much of the suffering inflicted on them has been largely by their own corrupt leadership, gorged on millions in aid while others suffer in poverty. The rest of the Arab and Muslim world told them not to accept UN Partition, not to negotiate, and not to make peace, while at the same time refusing to offer Palestinian refugees a new life, consigning most of them to camps. Their leadership has played a double game and encouraged them to believe they would be able to turn all the clocks back.

I have very little in common with right-wing Israeli political stances or with the left. I stand in the liberal middle, which means I will please nobody. Yet I do not believe there is anyone to negotiate a deal with at this moment. In the Middle East as is, Israel would be mad to concede any of its security. Exiting Gaza gained nothing. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are committed to exterminating Jews and intentionally fire rockets a civilian targets. Israel froze settlement expansion for a long time at the US’s request, in the hopes that this would lead to negotiation. It did not, any more than withdrawal from Gaza. both Gaza and Hezbollah continue to assert that they will continue to threaten Israel. The evidence shows that negotiation is going nowhere.

I don't see how exiting the West Bank entirely would be in Israel’s best interests. But to provoke one’s allies in the most blatant way, as members of Netanyahu’s government have, making provocative announcements and bellicose statements, cannot do anyone any good. Attacking Obama on his own territory cannot make sense. If he and Kerry were wary of Israel before, what does one expect? Don’t provoke bears unless you want to be bitten.

I have always favored the idea of land swaps in the interest of a settlement. I have always believed in the right of Arabs to live equally in Israeli territory. And I cannot see why Jews should not be allowed to stay and live under a Palestinian authority or state. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews claim they would prefer to live under a Muslim regime than a secular Jewish one. Yes, I think they are crazy. But they represent one other body of opinion in the complexity of the Middle East, where secular divisions and religious divisions often conflict with each other on both sides.

You cannot have genuine peace if there is no attempt at convivencia, genuine practical coexistence, rather than creating an apartheid division between where Jews may live and where Jews may not. If Arabs can live amongst Jews as they do, why not Jews amongst Arabs?

I deplore occupation. I agree with the late Professor Yeshaya Liebowitz, that it degrades Israel’s soul. Any army, however ethical, makes mistakes; rogue commanders, scared or immature soldiers can do inhuman things. No war, however justified, is pretty. I want to see occupation end. But how, without lying down and rolling over and committing suicide?

The threat from without has empowered an internal coalition in Israeli politics, with harsh, bullying voices. Yet between a third and a half of the Israeli electorate want peace and reject the rejectionists. they surely have the right to choose the government and the representatives democratically. Or is Obama extending his disdain for American democratic choices he does not agree with, to Israel too? The longer the legitimate concerns are ignored, the stronger the extremes will get. And the more extreme Islam gets, the less those who suffered its oppression firsthand (a majority of Israel’s Jewish and Christian population) are prepared to risk trying it again.

This is disturbing. I do not see a solution until the world tells the Palestinians as well as the Israelis that they MUST negotiate. Then, when there are agreed boundaries, we can talk about legalities and compensation and rectification. But until such a time, trying to bully only one side will only have the effect of pushing peace further away and handing the messianists the justification for praying for the apocalypse.

We can argue forever about the Mandate, about what constitutes legality, who rejected the UN partition plan, or who consistently—after 1948, after 1967—refused to negotiate. I believe the conflict is between two rights, two valid claims to the same house. But no one wants to hear the other’s point of view. The anti-Israel protestors across the universities of the Western World refuse to listen to arguments anyway. That has been their way since Leninism and Maoism. Do not engage. They only want to shout, disrupt, and boycott. No thought of peaceful dialogue.

No doubt Kerry and Obama will push even more. Regardless of what the UN decides, no solution can be imposed. Practically, it is totally unrealistic. It just allows a sore to fester. Even if Trump restores American support for Israel’s right to safe, negotiated borders, he will not be President for ever. The tide will turn again. Perhaps by then, as Netanyahu believes, Israel will have made new alliances; perhaps not.

In the meantime, if the world really wants a solution, it can only come around the negotiating table, and facilitators have to be seen as objective. Both sides have their pathologies and neuroses. They must be dealt with. In the end, both sides must be pressured equally to end this festering sore. But it must be both sides. Equally. Peace will only come when there’s no alternative.

Churchill supposedly said of the UN, “Better jaw-jaw than war-war.” But Obama, Kerry, and the UN are currently encouraging war-war, because they refuse to insist that the parties to the conflict engage in jaw-jaw. Yes, I am worried. Not about whether there is a Palestinian state or what the whole world thinks, but about the violence that is bound to continue with both sides suffering.

PS - I am delighted that Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, has decided to stand up and say publicly pretty much the same thing. There are benefits to Brexit.

December 22, 2016

Thoughts on Chanukah

Why do miracles happen sometimes and not others? Is it because we deserved them?

Many rabbis like to claim that when bad things happen it is only because we have done something to deserve it. So why do horrible things happen to, say, newly born children who couldn’t possibly have done anything to deserve it? Why are millions of innocent children murdered, or pious, learned, charitable people hacked to death in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed to God? Were they punished for being Jews? Or were the hundreds of thousands of women, children, and men of Aleppo tortured, raped, bombed, gassed, and exiled punished for being the wrong sort of Muslim? It is too facile to think that God works that way.

Some will tell you that it has to do with the gilgulim, the transmigration of souls and punishment for earlier crimes. Such irrational theories are a recent arrival on the Jewish scene, not found in the Torah or the Talmud. Rational minds find such ideas as illogical as resorting to astrologers and palm readers.

Religions tell us that repentance, prayer, and charity avert evil decrees, or that those performing a good deed are protected. And yet it is said that there is no justice in this world; it is all in the Next World. But since no one has ever seen the Next World or knows very much about it, these are non-rational solutions. So why then do so many of us think that rabbis, mystics, Shamans, and mindreaders can really know or guarantee us anything? Is it just our need for certainty that gulls us into believing what we want to?

It is true the Torah speaks as if God conforms to human standards. Promising good things if we obey and bad things if we do not. But one cannot learn law or philosophy from biblical metaphors. Yet we are warned not to think of rewards for our actions, but to do things because they are the right things to do. As Rabbi Yaakov says, we simply do not know why the good suffer and the bad prosper (Avot 4:16).

The simple answer is that while we may discover the rules of the universe, we just do not know how God works. The Torah itself says (Deuteronomy 24:16) that one is only punished for one’s own sins, not for others’. But what if one has not done anything to deserve an early death? Bad things happen. Not in payment for actions, but simply the way of the world we live in. If a jet crashes, it is usually because of a malfunction or terrorism. Earthquakes, avalanches, or typhoons are part of nature. Not designed to pay humans back for some offense.

The function of religion is not, as is often stated, to answer all our questions. It cannot. That is, after all, why the Talmud said that sometimes it is better not to enquire too much about things we cannot know (they were not talking about science). Rather religions function to help us cope, by giving us a framework for living that incorporates the unknown and the unknowable. We have to deal in life with things beyond our control as well as the consequences of our own daily behavior. Having a framework enables us to adjust to tragedy and loss. It’s when one has no framework for living, that depression can so easily set in. Focusing on a mystical idea enables us to think beyond our immediate physical world, to handle pain by thinking of other, more comforting things. Exercises such as deep breathing and relaxing help us cope with physical pain, mental pain, and the unthinkable.

The biblical Hebrew word for faith is “Emunah”. But Emunah is not a theological proposition. It has a root of being firm, strong, reliable. Having the resilience, the strength to persevere and survive. Belief in God does not necessarily mean everything will be taken care of or put right. God is not Superman, or a machine that you put something in that guarantees you get something out. Belief gives reassurance, something to hold onto—an alternative to an intolerable present.

We humans are biodiverse organisms with millions of microbes within us and without (see I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong). They are constantly battling with each other and themselves to perform different functions in our bodies. They build and destroy different parts of us every second of our lives. Sometimes these microbes help break down food and help create blood cells. Sometimes they turn against us and cause malfunctions and what we call diseases. Sometimes they fight off intruders and sometimes, like fifth columnists, they welcome them in. Why are we not surprised when slowly our bodies deteriorate towards death? We may mourn and be sad at the loss. But we hardly need an explanation of “why.”

When something goes wrong in our bodies, it is not a malevolent agent punishing us. All of this is simply how the world works. As the Talmud says, “The world runs according to its own rules.” (Avodah Zara 54b)

Now it is true that when things go wrong we are encouraged to check to see if there’s anything we have done wrong or could do better. If we survive an accident, we may be tempted not only to thank God, but also to determine to live a more meaningful life henceforth in gratitude for our survival. But that does not mean the accident or the disease was a punishment, a payback.

Is it a punishment if I was born with a poor brain but a strong body? Or if I am less gifted musically, but better at sport? Or if I am born into a rich family or a poor one? We all have some things going for us, even the most handicapped. And plenty of humans who seem gifted with enormous benefits squander them.

I guess that if we were to look back at our lives and at history, we would probably discover that there’s a reasonable balance between the good things that have happened to most of us and the bad. Our task is to make the most and best out of our lives, our gifts, and our circumstances.

Chanukah (however you spell it) reminds us of the proactive—taking responsibility, of facing challenges and getting a second chance. It's a most relevant idea. Of how two thousand, one hundred and sixty five years ago we were threatened with extinction and yet we survived. All these years later others are being threatened with extinction now. The world stands by as people are suffering in Syria. That's why it’s so important to be in control of our own destiny. But it is also essential to care and be proactive about helping others beyond our own little Jewish world.

Chanukah also stands for the spiritual miracle of the oil, of keeping flames alight when others would extinguish them. It is a historical example of when things went right for us. Other days in the calendar remind us of our catastrophes. Neither we nor the universe is perfect. The world was made out of chaos and remains chaotic. There is no panacea. No perfect solution or answer. We only know we must do our best.

Maimonides, interestingly, in his laws about Chanukah, ends the chapter with a little homily on how important peace is, peace for us, peace for the world. We ignore the rest of the world at our peril, not to mention moral failure. At the very moment that we celebrate our deliverance we must, says Maimonides, think about others too.

December 15, 2016

The violinist: Saul Milevsky, 1926-2006, Birkenau

The Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium is unique in that it is the most predominantly Orthodox, Chasidic, and Yiddish-speaking community in Europe. But it is also unique in that its Jewish life centers on the diamond industry.

Jewish life in Antwerp is very concentrated, intense, and convenient, with both the residential and commercial located in about one square kilometer stretching south from the diamond district. The main offices and exchanges of the diamond industry, the bourses, are located on Hoveniersstraat. It is a short, narrow and very busy street. People are constantly rushing up and down it, in and out of the diamond offices, or stopping to chat, trade, or argue. Chasidic-dressed dealers bargain with elegant businessmen and scruffy conmen from the third world trying to offload suspect parcels of diamonds smuggled in from political trouble spots.

Some twenty-five years ago I was living in Antwerp and working out of an office in one of the bourses. I was fascinated by life in this heavily Jewish (and Indian) little microcosm of competing interests, dynasties, families, and allies in business. They seemed to be constantly scheming often working against each other as much as together. You never knew which old family friend from “back home” would swindle or blackmail you or who would kindly take in a new arrival and help set him up in business.

One of the characters who frequented Hoveniersstraat almost every day of the working week was a beggar everyone knew as Hopla. He was a small, rotund elderly man dressed in a raincoat no matter what the season, with a small shabby hat on his head. He was always carrying a black bag and a walking stick, which he used liberally to prod or whack anyone he felt slighted him, made fun of him, or did not give him a big enough donation. He often shouted at people and was particularly aggressive with kids who loved to tease him.It seems he got his nickname because every time he succeeded in giving some kid who provoked him a whack with his stick, he would shout out, “Hopla!” Just like a circus clown or acrobat delighting in his performance or victory.

On my first day there, I ignored him as I walked by. He shouted at me. I ignored him. The second day he blocked my way, glared at me, and waved his stick. I was repelled by his aggression and yet drawn to him. I asked around.I heard from someone that he had been a musician. I also heard someone say he was really very rich, and begging was only a way of life, not a necessity.

So the next day as I took out some money to give him, I mischievously started humming the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which had been the signature tune of the BBC to occupied Europe in the war. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. He hummed the opening of the Sixth. From that day on we became sort of friends. A tune from me, from Rameau through Brahms to Shostakovich, and he would hum one back by whichever composer I choose. This became a daily routine. But he would never respond to any question I might ask about him. A few years later I left Antwerp and forgot about him. Until a friend from Antwerp sent me an obituary.

His name was Saul Milevsky. He was born in Lodz, Poland. Between the wars he had performed as a violinist in various orchestras in Poland. He had been forced into the ghetto by the Nazis and finally ended up in Birkenau, where his skill as a violinist had saved him. But his parents had been murdered there. After the war he joined a Zionist youth organization and headed to Palestine in defiance of the British, who tried to prevent Jews getting through their blockade. He was caught by British Mandate patrols and interned in Cyprus. When he arrived in Palestine he joined the Irgun and participated in military action against the occupying forces. After the War of Independence, he earned a living as a musician playing in the Kol Israel Orchestra.

Some time in the 1950s he made his way to Brussels. He joined the Jewish community and was well known to the local rabbis. In Belgium, too, he played in several orchestras and was still playing in 1978. But an injury to his hand ended his career. He had a nervous breakdown and ended up on the streets begging. He found Antwerp much more lucrative than Brussels and travelled there every day of the week.

He had a regular beat, from the diamond area on to the Jewish stores and places of worship. One of his stops was at the butcher shop and delicatessen run by Anshel Fruchter. There he picked up whatever food they spared him, put it into the black bag he carried around, and went on his way. If he saw someone who looked needy, he would offer them some food from his black bag. He would always go to Reb Itzikel’s in Mercatorstraat for the afternoon prayers. It seems he was known to several prominent Chasidic rebbes. There are photos of him with some of them. One was with the Bobover rebbe smiling benevolently at him. Few in Antwerp had any idea about his musical expertise or intellectual past, or indeed of his heroic involvement in Israel’s independence. All they saw was a sad, broken little man who had survived the Holocaust.

After he died, the local community circular asked readers to send in anything they knew or remembered about him. Some readers wrote in to say that he was not poor. He owned several properties in Brussels. Some said his money went to distant relatives in Israel. Others say he had a son in Brussels, and he inherited it. Some said the state confiscated it all because he paid no taxes. 

One contributor said that if anyone ever challenged him about his bad temper or why he particularly chased young boys who teased him, he would say, “I was in Auschwitz. You don’t know what I suffered. You have no right to question me.” Another quoted him as saying of his life, “I may breathe, but I do not live.” Perhaps the fact that he ended up begging was his way of saying that those who had never suffered the way he had owed him.

We who were so fortunate not to have to experienced what those who survived the camps did, can have no idea what people like Hopla went through. We cannot judge the way people reacted differently to the horrors they experienced. Some just could not deal with it, could not adjust to normal life. Some were mentally destroyed, if not physically. There were survivors who became caring human beings, determined to repay evil with goodness. Others just pursued selfish pleasure as if to make up for what they had lost. Some even became crooks. We at least should keep the memory alive of what humans are capable of towards other humans for no other reason than the pathology of prejudice. Hopla survived. But he did not live.

I am often reminded of the story in which the camp prisoners put God on trial for allowing the atrocities to happen to so many innocent people. After much debate, they found God guilty. Then one of those present got up and said, “Gentlemen, it’s time for the afternoon prayers.”

December 08, 2016

Studying Torah is the Answer to Creating Jobs

There has been a lot of debate in the USA and elsewhere about jobs, or rather the loss of them and what to do about it, particularly since recent plebiscites have largely been won on this issue.

Although on paper unemployment is relatively low in advanced economies, a growing number of workers are being made redundant either by jobs moving to countries where it is cheaper to manufacture, old industries dying as they are replaced by newer ones, and most significantly, technology increasingly requiring fewer and fewer humans to be employed. Robots, artificial memory and new efficiencies make humans expensive and redundant. Medicine has achieved amazing advances in treatment, diagnostics, and remote techniques that also reduce manpower. Drones will take over delivery and mail. Driverless cars will affect transport, truckers, and taxi drivers. Almost all the repetitive dull jobs will go. Employment may soon be the privilege of the few and a thing of the past.

Millions of jobs once moved from Europe and the USA to China. Now that the standard of living is rising in China, jobs are moving to Vietnam, or from America they have gone to Mexico. But one can already see signs of jobs migrated from those countries to poorer ones. The question is what can replace them? We all assume that finance or computer programming are the geese that will lay golden eggs. But they too are being lost to computerized systems. Politicians claim they can bring jobs back. Perhaps they can, a few. But like Canute, they cannot turn the tide back.

Once upon a time one entered employment assuming that if one fulfilled allocated tasks one would remain in employment throughout one’s working life. This has become rarer and rarer. Most people, if not already, will soon have to get used to changing work and skills many times during their years of employment, either willingly or compulsorily.

The problem is far worse in many poorer societies, where millions of young, healthy, bright men and women have shrinking opportunities to find work. The only options are to join fanatical religious communities that offer support and a sense of belonging (which too often turn the faithful to disruptive violence) or emigration to richer countries. Which over time will not help. Like the millions brought to Britain from Pakistan to man the Lancashire textile industry, which then disappeared with their jobs.

One solution being discussed is that rich countries should give everyone a basic wage regardless of whether they are working or not. It may sound ridiculous, but at the moment welfare payments, even in supposedly capitalist countries, are ballooning out of control, and no politician dares suggest cutbacks (publicly at any rate). So switching welfare into a basic wage for everyone might make sense. Another is for public projects, infrastructure, renovations, and innovations to pick up the employment slack—a tactic that worked well for fascist governments between the two world wars (and, dare I say it, for FDR in the USA).

Social work, nursing, teaching, home caring, and human-intensive jobs are low paid and often done by immigrants for less than the indigenous population is prepared to accept. Either immigration will continue to fill low-paying jobs, or pay will have to rise sufficiently to attract the locals. What is happening is that welfare is cushioning those who do not want to take on menial jobs. Immigration helps and objecting to all immigration makes no sense. But without proper precautions there are unwanted consequences, culturally and financially. In Europe at the moment, there are just as many immigrants who are unemployed and supported by the state as there are working and paying taxes.

It is possible that new ways will be found to keep humans employed and paid. Areas that rely on creativity, intelligence, science and human interactivity. such as research, education, nursing, caring, geriatric and mental services, drug rehabilitation, and social interaction. Not to mention music, sports, the arts and entertainment. They will all require more, not fewer, hands. But all the signs are that vast numbers of people will never have a job or have one only for a very limited period. This will help leisure activities, but once again the financial burden will fall on governments or the few rich who are making inordinate sums of money.

Despair not. Judaism has a solution. There are hundreds of thousands of young men, (and increasingly women) who sit and study, all day long, most days and weeks of the year. They neither need nor want jobs. They see studying Torah as a religious and spiritual obligation, because study, as much as prayer, is a spiritual exercise as well as an intellectual one. Some of them, a very small percentage, will take jobs as rabbis, religious judges, teachers, and administrators (some even as politicians). But the rest will be studying throughout their lives and feeling both content and morally satisfied, as well as intellectually challenged and stimulated throughout their lives. Although I concede that for many its a convenient routine withe few questions asked about standards or achievements.

In most cases, they will not be making big money. But they will be supported by communities that go a long way towards compensating for limited financial means, with assistance or charity. Most Charedi education, to give one example, is free. Whereas out in the Jewish world it will cost you upwards of $30,000 per year per child in a Jewish school—which becomes unfeasible if you have five children or more! What is more, studying goes on throughout one’s life. No thought of retiring or having nothing to do or feeling rejected or unworthy when your job ceases.

For years the accepted narrative has been that the Charedi world will collapse under the weight of so many poor and unemployable men and women with large families. Poverty is endemic. The urgent need to find employment for them has become a mantra of sociologists and economists. But they often fail to understand how such communities of the studiers are sustained internally as well as through welfare. It is ironic how the Charedi world despises secular culture. Yet it has been the secular culture of state welfare that has actually enabled them to thrive!

Attempts to encourage Charedi men to get a secular education and a job are to be heard everywhere. Critics say that Charedi education fails to provide the tools to join the workforce. But perhaps they are wrong. The jobs may not be there except for a very few. Maybe the Charedi model is the best in a changing world. A model that can give people a daily task and role. A sense of purpose in life and a spiritual goal. Intellectual and moral satisfaction. Who could ask for more? This is it! The solution.

Perhaps other religions should rethink their systems. To value study and to encourage the faithful to pursue it. Instead of the rest of the world seeing our Charedi Jews as narrow and regressive, Torah study may well put us way head of the rest. Intellectual achievement, far more than the labor of ones hands is the future. Am I being serious? I think I might well be. Someone should suggest this to Trump.

December 01, 2016

Elie Jesner

I want to tell you a story of Chelm (the mythical community of Jewish fools) that is, in fact, true. True of Anglo-Jewish establishment Orthodoxy.

I have known the Jesner family, the pillar of Orthodoxy in Glasgow, since 1968. They, as a successful business family, took responsibility for Jewish life in Glasgow, supporting its rabbis and yeshiva and contributing handsomely to such bastions of Torah Judaism in the UK as Gateshead and Sunderland. The family has always been passionately committed to Judaism and Zionism. It suffered a great loss when one of its very talented children, Yoni Jesner, was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel. His family has devoted itself to keeping his memory alive by funding causes that promote Torah and peace. In short, a treasure of a family. The sort that keeps Judaism thriving.

As in any family, succeeding generations have chosen their own paths. Some are in the rabbinate, some outstanding lay leaders, and others simply upholding and sustaining Jewish life. Every one of them that I know, I love and admire. It therefore strikes me that something is terribly wrong with Orthodoxy if it can ostracize and try to silence one of them simply because he chooses to take an independent line.

Elie Jesner is a very gifted communicator who, according to a recent article in the UK Jewish Chronicle, has been blackballed by certain Orthodox institutions. He is a Cambridge University graduate and has studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. He is not a professional educator in the sense that it is his only career. He has worked in finance, and he is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. And having heard him personally, I know him to be a great teacher and a first-class exponent of committed Torah Judaism. He combines an intellectually open approach to the varied voices and opinions in the Torah world with an analytical and critical mind. He belongs to and regularly attends an Orthodox synagogue. Above all, he is a really good, caring human being. There are not many people like him. I would have thought we should treasure such a gifted member of the community. But no. The Anglo-Jewish Orthodox establishment has declared him persona non grata.

I accept that there are times when one has to fight to protect one’s position and one’s values. Sometimes there are assaults that need to be fought off. But is this such a case? What are his terrible crimes and heresies?

Because he teaches a non-fundamentalist, nuanced Orthodoxy, he was banned from teaching at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) and from the educational programs of Kinloss (Finchley United Synagogue), the Orthodox synagogue where he is a member. He offers his educational services to the Louis Jacobs Foundation. He has helped organize a partnership minyan and has dared to question the condemnation of such services by the rabbinic council. He has set up educational programs for 1,300 students at JCoSS, the Jewish Community Secondary School.

The London School of Jewish Studies is the last remnant of what was once Jews College, an academic institution to train rabbis and other clergy for the Anglo rabbinate. It included outstanding, internationally known Jewish academics of impeccable credentials and reputations, such as Isidore Epstein, Kopel Kahana, Naphtali Wieder, and H.J. Zimmels, to mention the last of the greats. The school began its decline in the late 1950s, when senior lecturer Louis Jacobs was blocked from succeeding Epstein on the debatable grounds of his heterodoxy. The final nails in its coffin were the supremacy of Israeli yeshivot and Chabad, whose graduates competed for the same market and in effect took it over. The LSJS has emerged from the shell to become a center for adult education. It is pretty good at most of what it does. Except it is under the scrutiny and control of the Chief Rabbinate and the London Beth Din, which see their role as protecting Jewry from unsuitable ideas.

I have personal experience of this. Jews College once produced a magazine called L’Eylah, devoted to scholarly articles. I used to write for it, until I submitted a book review that said that the exclusion of someone as significant as Rabbi Louis Jacobs was a loss to Anglo-Jewry. For that alone, the editor told me, on superior instructions, no more of my articles would be accepted.

For some reason this ancient battle, now over sixty years old, still rankles. One can argue till kingdom come about what Rabbi Jacobs said and meant. Whether he made mistakes or not. But the undisputed fact is that he, personally, remained punctiliously observant. He cared deeply for Torah Judaism and was committed to it until the day he died.

What is wrong with people, still so fearful of some sort of heretical virus, that anyone who reads, likes, or teaches anything he wrote, or tries to keep his memory alive, is regarded as a dangerous heretic? Dear reader, can this make any sense to you? Can we be dealing with reasonable, intelligent people?

Another issue has become the testing ground of heresy. Women! Tell it not in Gat. More and more, highly educated, learned, committed Orthodox women want to play a more active part in religious services while still remaining committed to Torah and its commandments. In Israel for many years now women have been running services for women. I used to encourage them when I was in Yakar in London. There was no attempt or desire to interfere or change the established Orthodox tradition, just to allow for an extra dimension, an option that would encourage the desire to pray together in an atmosphere of female spirituality. Such developments were supported by highly knowledgeable rabbis of impeccable pedigrees and scholarship. But it is true that the mainstream preferred to ignore them.But still, praying is hardly undermining the Divine Will!

Out of this new dynamism amongst the ranks of learned and motivated women grew something called the partnership minyan. In this variation, separation is maintained. Men conduct those parts of the service that are exclusively obligatory to men. Women do those parts which are not. Certainly this is a controversial step, but it hardly undermines or seeks to replace the established order of Orthodoxy. It simply wants to offer an extra option. And people will choose. Reasonable, no?

Of course not! This is the thin end of the wedge, the tipping point, the end! Anyone expressing any sympathy whatsoever is, as with Elie, a danger to Jewish survival!

And finally, JCOSS. Since Anglo Jewish day schools, for historical reasons, have been under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, they have excluded anyone who is not 100 percent Orthodox. That means that there are numbers of Jews (however you want to define it) who are excluded from such schools. You would have thought that Chief Rabbis concerned with the community at large, not just their constituency, would relent and follow the practice common, say, amongst the Orthodox communities of Canada, Australia, South Africa, and, yes, the USA, and be flexible. But this is Anglo-Jewry, where a Chief Rabbi wasted millions going to court to uphold his refusal to allow the child of a convert to attend the Jewish Free School (which is the oldest, the largest Jewish community secondary and State supported school in London).

As a result, an independent group of educators and donors set up another school that welcomes anyone who wants his or her children to have a Jewish education. Again, no threat to the established Orthodox community, just an alternative. All Elie did was simply assist them with their Jewish education. And this makes him a danger to Orthodoxy!

I know Elie to be a man committed to Torah. Are we to assume that there is no place in Orthodoxy for such a person? Are they scared that he will undermine the foundations of Torah? Obviously so. In Anglo-Jewry.

Thank goodness for Israel. For there, at least, in addition to the obvious Charedi options, you can find enlightened, Orthodox communities and synagogues that can offer such people a warm welcome, respect, and validation. Universities and academic institutions where independent, openminded thinkers are encouraged, not muzzled or excluded. And where scholarship and Torah flourish. Were Elie to go east or west, he would be welcomed with open arms, and it would be yet another loss for Anglo-Jewry.