February 23, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli

We may think that current political discourse is crude and vicious. But believe me, beneath a veneer of gentility, politics in the British Empire was worse. As Hobbes put “nasty and brutish.” If he were alive today Benjamin Disraeli would agree with me!

Benjamin Disraeli, 1804 –1881 was born in London. His family came to England from an Italy. Although his father held membership in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, he never attended. He was expected, as a member to join the board which he did for a time. But he officially resigned over whether he could be compelled to continue and left the community altogether. Benjamin and his sister were converted to Anglicanism as children, and brought up in the Church of England. He had hardly any knowledge of Judaism and its practices and came to believe that Judaism was a purely racial phenomenon. He even saw it as a barbaric faith that had been superseded by Christianity, and he believed that all Jews should abandon the Old Testament for the New. He rebuked his friends the Rothschilds for hanging onto their Jewish identities. But when it suited him, he played up his supposed Jewish aristocratic lineage.

He was attracted to journalism, and throughout his life he wrote popular novels. He entered politics on the side of Reform but switched to the party of the Aristocratic landowners, the conservatives, supporting the monarchy, the Church of England, and the protectionism of the landed aristocracy. In 1868 he became Prime Minister for the first time, briefly, before leading the party to a majority in the 1874 election. He developed a very close friendship with Queen Victoria. He was quite a ladies man and accused of using his wiles to win her over. He was proudly British and he fought for its imperial interests, supporting the declining Ottoman Empire to thwart Russian expansion and buying the Suez Canal (with the help of the Rothschilds) to facilitate British access to its Eastern colonies.

He tried to distance himself from Judaism. Rather like Henry Kissinger in his prime. He avoided getting involved in the long struggle to allow a Jew to become a member of parliament if he would not swear by the Christian faith. When he visited the Middle East and Jerusalem, he spoke to no Jews and visited no synagogues. He refused to support Sir Moses Montefiore and Albert Cremieux in coming to the aid of the Syrian Jews imprisoned and tortured over the Damascus Blood Libel in 1840 or the kidnapping by the Catholic Church of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara in 1858. Neither did he support Laurence Oliphant, the Christian Zionist who came to him asking for support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1879.

Yet for all that Disraeli tried to escape his Jewish identity, he was hounded and reviled throughout his life and beyond as an oily, devious, dishonest Jew, typical of all those who shared his history.

The late lamented and talented David Cesarani who passed away too soon, was commissioned to write a short life of Disraeli for the Yale University series called “Jewish Lives.” As paradoxical and inconsistent a selection of subjects as one could dream up if one tried. The mere fact of including Disraeli as one shows how loosely the net has been drawn.The book is not an easy read, but very worthwhile. If only to remind us how deeply the virus of anti-Semitism was embedded in British society from the eighteenth century onwards, even exceeding in its virulence that of France and Germany (which is saying something).

Such was the hatred that the Jew Bill of 1753, granting Jews civil rights, had been passed by Parliament, signed by King George, but then revoked because of the outcry from the church, commerce, aristocracy, and the middle classes. It would take another hundred years until Lionel de Rothschild was finally allowed to take his seat in Parliament, because he was finally allowed to take an oath on the Old Testament only. There were philo-Semites too, of course, like George Eliot and indeed Laurence Oliphant. But they were few and far between and overwhelmed by the primitive hatred of the English upper and middle classes in general (educated and ignorant alike).

Cesarani’s thesis is that Disraeli was excoriated and despised and mistrusted so much precisely because of his Jewish birth. Yet he came to acknowledge his Jewish birth with pride. Why? The source of his pride was his belief that the Jewish race has bequeathed nobility and talent to humanity through its inspiration of Christianity and Islam. His novels were sprinkled with Jewish heroes and noble examples of Jewish wisdom and generosity. But they were all without an iota of Jewish religious commitment or identity, and on the few occasions he tried to insert something of the Jewish religion, he got it completely wrong. Yet his famous reply to an anti-Semitic attack was “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” To him, the fact that he had Jewish blood defined him racially, if not religiously. Such views were eagerly adopted by the evil pantheon of European Jew-haters. As Cesarani says:
“Ultimately he fits squarely into modern Jewish history for the worst reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse. Within a few years of his demise his words were being cited by Baurer, Marr, Drumont, Chamberlain, Hillaire Belloc, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even Hitler, to justify their insane and pathological hatred of Jews.”
All his early biographies were written by anti-Semites like Edward Freeman, Goldwin Smith, and Thomas O’Connor, who all demeaned him and betrayed their own crude anti-Semitism.

In 1877 the Turks had reacted to a Christian rebellion in Serbia and Bulgaria with barbaric force and cruelty. Disraeli took steps to block the Russian military assault on the Ottomans. The lords of his Conservative Party and public opinion insisted that Disraeli punish the Turks. But, he refused to. Together with Germany and France, he blocked Russian advance in the Middle East and at the Treaty of Berlin was rewarded with the island of Cyprus. For his pains, he was scurrilously attacked as a Jew who undermined Christianity in favor of the Turks because they were more sympathetic to the Jews than the Christians.

Disraeli desperately wanted to escape Judaism and be accepted by the British aristocracy. But in the end he was, in Bismarck’s words, just considered “the Old Jew.” His success in the end was ability to use the system to his advantage. If anything he proved that you don’t have to be loved to be successful. Some of the most effective politicians have been the least likable.Times have not changed as much as we like to think they have.

February 16, 2017

Apartheid in Israel

Benjamin Pogrund was born in South Africa. As a journalist, he fought the apartheid regime, most notably through his work for The Rand Daily Mail. When the government closed it down and exiled him, he moved to London, where he joined The Independent and The Sunday Times. In his latest book, Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel, he completely demolishes the spurious, not to say libelous, claim that Israel is an apartheid state.

I became an opponent of apartheid when my father took me with him to South Africa on one of his lecture tours, in 1955. While he was busy lecturing, I was handed into the charge of some lovely Jewish ladies who turned out to be radical opponents of the system. They took me around some of the townships and made sure I saw the evils of the system at first hand. In my student days, I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and eventually rose to become honorary president of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

In 1985 I was approached by the late chief rabbi of South Africa, Bernard Casper, to consider succeeding him. I went out and spent a month in Johannesburg to explore the possibilities. I wanted to know the inside story of South Africa—whether there was anything I could do, if the position became a reality, to mitigate or even to combat the apartheid government. It was through Benjamin’s good offices that I could get to meet many of the ANC and COSATU underground leadership, to get a feel for the situation. It was not easy to get to meet them. Only Benjamin’s reputation and the enormous respect they had for him got me through. They all advised me not to come. They told me that if I did take a stand, I would be put on the next plane out. That the situation was hopeless, and a bloodbath was imminent. Of course, things did not work out that way, fortunately, due overwhelmingly to the greatness of Nelson Mandela and the realism of President de Klerk. And the late Rabbi Cyril Harris did an excellent job shepherding the Jewish community through the transition.

Benjamin and his family subsequently moved to Israel, where he joined my late brother Mickey in setting up the Centre for Social Concern at YAKAR in Jerusalem to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

Unlike most people, he actually knows and has experienced apartheid firsthand. Hence he is better able than most to deal with the charges that Israel is an apartheid state. He can state categorically that applying the term apartheid to Israel is simply ignorance, if not malice. To call Israel genocidal when its Arab population has doubled is a joke. Even the population of the Palestinian territories has mushroomed. Which means that Israelis must be the most incompetent genocidists ever!

In his balanced, detailed, and honest book, he completely demolishes the comparison, based entirely on objective facts. Under apartheid no black South African was allowed to vote or take up residence in white areas. In contrast, Israeli Arabs sit in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and hold senior positions never, ever accorded to blacks in South Africa under the old regime. The areas currently occupied by Israel are indeed in a state of limbo awaiting a final peace settlement. The only people wanting the area to be occupied by only one race are the Palestinians. In a very different situation than South Africa. The Afrikaaner whites never intended to give any sovereignty to blacks, regardless of any settlement of their differences. Theirs was an ideology of racial superiority, not an unfortunate political accommodation awaiting a peace treaty, in which peace was being pursued in principle, if not always in reality. This book is an excellent overview of the present struggle between two competing claims, both of the past and the present. It is possibly the fairest book on the market for a balanced, objective viewpoint.

It is all the more important because, in examining the charges, he pulls no punches in criticizing Israel both within the green line and on the occupied West Bank and Gaza. He has no patience for extremism on either side. He points out Israel’s mistakes, failures, and shortcomings without trying in any way to disguise or minimize them. This book is an important source of facts, arguments, and replies that will help anyone on the frontline defending Israel against the lies, half-truths, and mendacious libels that one hears all the time and in almost every sector of the media, the glitterati, the NGOs, the charities, and academia. That lying should be the case in polemics and politics, of course, is a given. It’s politics. But that people professing honesty, objectivity, and ethics do so simply illustrates the amount of prejudice, hypocrisy, and mendacity that stalks the world we live in, and in fact actually prevents and postpones any chance of a settlement.

This is the issue. Sadly, no matter what Benjamin, or anyone else for that matter, writes, it will make absolutely no difference, any more than a Marxist can be objective about a capitalist. Ideological blindness is played out on university campuses where the ideological leanings of professors become the only point of view acceptable if one wants to pass exams or gain promotion in weighted, self-perpetuating faculties. Or where aggressive, bullying student cadres look to disrupt and silence any other points of view. All this at a time when most of the nations who berate Israel as a colonial interloper and aggressor are themselves the most corrupt offenders against human rights and civilized behavior on earth.

Israel will survive. But the awful side effect of exaggerated and prejudiced anti-Israel propaganda is that it further empowers right-wing refusal to compromise. It reinforces a siege mentality, imperviousness to self-analysis. One despairs of a solution when exceptional, fair, and experienced people like Benjamin will simply not be listened to, because they will be dismissed as tools of colonialism, regardless of their record. At the same time, he will be dismissed by the Israeli right wing as being too liberal. Such is the mad, mad world we live in. It is only by encountering good, honest people like Benjamin Pogrund that we can retain some faith in humanity and its prospects.

February 09, 2017

Jack Lunzer

Jack Lunzer, who died this past December, was famous for his Valmadonna collection of Jewish books, texts, and incunabula. It was the largest collection of Judaica in private hands, and Sotheby’s described it as “quite simply the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.”

But to those us who knew him, Jack, the man, was one of the most interesting, multifaceted persons one could ever come across. When you met him, you would never know which persona you might encounter. The international diamond dealer, the Orthodox Jewish follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Frankfort, the generous philanthropist, the Yekke, the English gentleman, the Yiddish-speaking Belgian, the Italian count, the African diplomat, the opera buff, philatelist, horse breeder, skier, horticulturalist, man-about-town, bon viveur, joker, pious Jew and scholar. He was all of those, and more. Not to mention the doting father of five special girls.

We were connected indirectly. His brother Henry had married my mother’s cousin. I first met him when I was eleven. I was invited for tea one Shabbat at his elegant home in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London. The long table was laid impeccably with the finest china and silver above the starched white lace tablecloth. His elegant, perfectionist Italian wife Ruth and he always made sure everything was of the best and most fashionable. We were seated, and tea was poured by uniformed staff. As I reached out for the strawberry confiture to spread on my scone, I dropped the spoon, and its contents stained the tablecloth bright red. I was mortified. Jack saw how embarrassed I was. He reached out, picked up the jar, and turned it upside down, spilling all its contents onto the table. “There you are young man,” he said, smiling, “no need to feel bad about it.” What a generous and thoughtful act. But of course, it made me feel even more embarrassed, despite his good intentions.

My aunt and uncle who also lived in the Suburb were very close friends with the Lunzers. They often went skiing together in Switzerland. It was through them that I became a regular visitor whenever my parents brought me up to London from our Oxfordshire home. Everything about Jack was impressive—his home, his vintage Rolls Royce car that he said he needed to impress his clients. So was the flagpole in front of his house with the Guinea-Bissau flag, signifying that he was in fact their consul to the UK. One of the great coups of his life was when he cornered the Guinea-Bissau diamond production from under the noses of DeBeers.

Jack was born in Antwerp. His family had established itself in diamonds and had built the Eisenmann Synagogue, a little island of the Frankfort Jewish community, with its combination of deep commitment to traditional Judaism and a very Germanic openminded cultural outlook. When the family left Belgium for London, they joined and became prime movers of the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, which used to be called “Munks” after its very cultured founding rabbi, Dr. Elie Munk. It too was an island of Germanic Judaism and held out for a long time before the wave of Charedi excess swept it firmly into the fundamentalist camp. Jack went to work in the family diamond business, and in due course took it over and expanded it well beyond its initial parameters.

Every time I visited Jack there would be another visitor there—an ancient rabbi from the east, a modern one from the west, a Zionist, an anti-Zionist, a duke, a count, a magnate, or a beggar. Jack spoke to each in his own language and as if they inhabited the very same world. And each time I visited, I would discover that Jack had a new passion. Of all of them in those early years, the opera was the most consuming. As with everything, he threw himself enthusiastically into it and became an expert, a patron, and an aficionado.

Somewhere along the line, he began to collect old Jewish books. What started off as a few shelves in his spacious home turned into a whole room, which then turned into an annex. Books took over his life, as he gathered around him experts and academics and became an expert in his own right. Of all his passions, beyond his family, this was the one that consumed him, and hardly anything else seemed to matter. Over the years I would see him occasionally, at family affairs or seated amongst his books, pointing out some unique feature of a particular volume. Or running off a list of all the Jewish books ever printed in, say, Venice.

He used to hold regular services in his home on Friday evenings, and his family expanded it into a small synagogue in the Suburb at which I was occasionally invited to officiate. One Rosh Hashana he was very agitated because that I wore a black kipa on my head instead of a white one. He assured me that my father would not have been so lacking in respect for tradition (in the nicest way, of course, with a smile on his face). He brought me a white crocheted kipa, which probably came from somewhere like Khartoum, to wear the next day (which I still have).

I doubt anyone knew everything about him. I once asked him if I could write his biography. He laughed and said he didn’t want anyone to know everything there was to know about him. The last time I saw him was in New York in 2009. It was at Sotheby’s. He was sitting like a king amongst his beloved books, enjoying being courted and consulted, greeting scholars, friends, and well-wishers with geniality and good humor. He was getting older, but the magic and the charisma, as well as the charm, were still there.

His world is gone, both the secular and the religious. Even his library is no longer completely intact. Nothing lasts forever. But I will always treasure his memory and so too will generations of bibliophiles.

February 02, 2017

Pray for the Welfare of the State

It is amusing and disturbing to see the demonstrations against an elected president, not so much for what he has done but for who he is. We rarely empathize with politicians. The bitterness this time in a change of power, seems to be coming from a deep sense of outrage felt by Democratic voters at having their sacred cows challenged, as well as the fact that Trump is a TV showman and not a typical president.

In Britain there is no point in demonstrating against the queen. She has no power, does not make laws. I am not a monarchist myself. In my childhood we used to make fun of the prayer for the queen that mentioned a list of minor royalty of doubtful quality. We would wonder who Heehoo was (as in the opening words “He Who Gives dominion unto princes”) or change “a spirit of wisdom and understanding” into “spirits of whisky and vodka.” Nevertheless, where I come from we just accepted whoever won a general election regardless of how much one disapproved of, or even despised, the political platform and personae. The winner, having abided by the rules, was the winner and exercised power in the way he or she decided. Though we knew that parliament or the House of Lords often emasculated the strongest of policies.

And this even though for the past 50 years the most successful party in the UK has rarely got much more than 40% of the popular vote. No one tries claiming they are illegitimate. So perhaps it just the difference between “new” democracies and old established, mature, worldly-wise ones. There are, it is true, always major issues at stake. But that is what democracy allows for. For swings, for change, and for differences.

There are many different types of democracies. The British constituency system is different than Israel’s proportional representation, which is different than the USA’s specific feature of an electoral college designed to prevent populous states monopolizing power. No system is perfect yet they are all democracies and as the great Jewish Persian authority Shmuel said, “The law of the land is the law.”

Some liberal-minded rabbis in the USA have decided not to recite what has been regarded as the norm in America, a prayer for the president. Does it matter? The prophets insisted that the Jews going into exile should pray for the protection of the regimes they were exiled to. The Mishna in Avot says, “You should pray for the welfare (peace) of the government, for without it people would swallow each other up alive.” There are lots of things one ought to pray for. But this does not imply a formal public prayer in a synagogue. It more likely meant that we as individuals should worry about the state of our society and try our best to support and encourage law and order.

But in Spain it became the custom in medieval times to indeed pray formally in the synagogues for the monarch to protect the Jews. Ironically, such public prayers fell on very deaf ears. Despite them, the Jews were attacked, discriminated against, and finally expelled from Spain.

Prayers for the monarch were common in Europe, asking God to protect the monarch and guide him or her to be kind to their Jewish subjects. But as we know from Tuvia in Fiddler on the Roof, the prayer was often to “Protect and keep the Czar…as far away from us as possible.”

Texts varied from country to country. In Britain such prayers mentioned the monarch by name. In the USA they prefer praying for the position (given that the incumbent changes every four or eight years). Some preferred prayers for the health of the monarch. Others implored them to “deal wisely and truly with all Israel.”

Such prayers often imitated Christian liturgies to show how loyal the Jews were. During times when they were persecuted as outsiders, fifth columns, and agents of the Devil, Jewish communities depended on the king to protect them from zealous Christian fanatics, both in the clergy and the populace. In many countries the national flag was displayed in synagogues. But increasingly they are falling out of fashion, just as we stand less and less often for national anthems.

In Israel, bless us (or not as the case may be), the Charedi world has long refused to pray for the state of Israel or its presidents or Zahal, to salute the flag, stand or join in when the national anthem is being played, or even celebrate Independence Day. Most people just look on them as daft and pathetic. After all, they do benefit from the state, even if they seem incapable of accepting it. I don’t see the fuss, and besides, whenever one says any prayer, one adds one’s own layers of meaning, intention, and significance.

But there’s another issue, perhaps dearer to my heart. Why add more prayers to services which are long enough anyway? I know some Modern Orthodox communities like them because they are not obligatory, and therefore you can ask a woman to recite them! Some like the idea of expressing loyalty, even gratitude that we won the war! Others love the pomposity. But do we need them altogether? I am a great believer in short services, in cutting out unnecessary padding and formality. Our liturgy is full of prayers asking for good governance and protection. Why add a specific one for the state we reside in? I can understand why under conditions of warfare or threats one would pray for one’s security and the protection of those who protect us. But again, if one is going to start including soldiers, police, security and spying agencies, the prayer will go on and on.

Of course, in our private prayers we express our hopes and anxieties. Once upon time we could not rely on states for protection or rights. We felt insecure. Now in Western democracies we can be more or less secure in our Jewish identities (although the Left and resurgent anti-Semitism is making this less of a given than it once was). We no longer need to profess loyalty. All the more so, since we know it is the law that protects us, rather than the whim of the head of state.

Once we had no choice. We needed to suck up to the authorities. Now we can live in a state with laws supposedly fair and applicable to all citizens of whatever religion. If anything, we should be praying for a fair and just system, rather than for its representatives.

I find such prayers rather empty, pompous expressions of formality. We have only one ruler and that is the Almighty, and we do spend rather a long time in every service praising and extolling Him and beseeching Him to protect us. But it is God we pray to and for, not human beings.

What is more, in Orthodox synagogues we recite on Shabbat the Kabbalistic declaration Brich Shmey De Marey Alma (Blessed is the Name of the Creator of the World). In it we say, “We are the servants of the Holy and Blessed One. We do not put our trust in men nor in princes, but only in God of Heaven.” So, let’s take the words we say to heart and scrap the prayer altogether. If we abide by the laws of the land, we should be good citizens like everyone else, even those who never go to synagogue or church at all.