January 19, 2017

Children’s Cultural Identities

We all know about how much damage parents can do to children. But sometimes society, even when it means well, can do much worse. Yair Ronen trained as a lawyer specializing in the rights of children. Unhappy with the way the law seemed too impersonal, he studied counseling. Now he is a tenured senior lecturer at Ben Gurion University.

Ronen has just published Re-understanding the Child’s Right to Identity: On Belonging, Responsiveness and Hope. It raises fascinating issues. It contrasts Jewish spiritual perspectives, thinkers such as Levinas and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who place a lot of emphasis on a child’s sense of cultural and religious self, with the failures of doctrinaire secular societies to understand and respond to the cultural and identity needs of children. It is a short, academic work, but very stimulating and well worth reading.

The law claims to recognize the need to protect children. Western societies talk a lot about protecting rights and human dignity. But in their secular fundamentalism, they tend to overlook one of the most important elements in a child’s development, which is his cultural ( and that includes the spiritual) identity. Neither the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child nor the European convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms explicitly upholds the need to have and preserve a sense of identity.

Or, as Ronen puts it, “Legal protection of the child’s right to human dignity does not guarantee protection of an individualized identity…the child’s need “to be” his authentic self. This involves the need to be and to become…we need policies of difference or identity which see suppressing distinctness by a dominant or majority identity as the cardinal sin against authenticity.”

Ronen’s personal experience informs his work. He was born in Israel to Iranian Jewish parents. Like many immigrant families in the early years of Israel’s existence, he felt the prejudice of the European Ashkenazi Jews. The atmosphere in Israel in the first 30 years of the State was one in which the secular ideology of the elite looked down on religion and tried its best to impede or discourage it.

Ronen’s family moved to London for a few years, where he went to school. There he encountered a very different world, different ways of dealing with prejudice. Anglo-Jews tended to suppress their issues with identity and the prevailing anti-Semitism. They were expected to play down Jewish identity in public. In some this led to an aggressive reaction.

This is particularly relevant in Israel. Well over a million Jewish refugees from Arab lands came to Israel after 1948. Some were forced out of the countries where they had been living, others eagerly left persecution. Their culture was Arabic as well as Jewish. Their music, literature, language, mentalities, values, and passions were oriental, not occidental. They were more sympathetic to tradition than most Ashkenazi Jews. And they were made to feel less because of it.

The result was some disastrous social engineering. For example, in the early years unaccompanied immigrant minors were sent to Youth Aliyah villages where they were denied religious services by the secular agencies for immigration. The religious parties protested and negotiated a deal whereby 25% of unaccompanied minors would be sent to religious absorption centers.

In 1958, after the religious quota had been filled, a boat arrived from Morocco with religious children. They were packed off to a secular Youth Aliyah center near Haifa. The yeshiva where I was studying had been alerted to their plight, and we were encouraged to visit the village in support of the children. We were refused entry. Though the wire fences we spoke to them. Some were crying because they were denied all religious services, and the staff were constantly upbraiding and teasing them for being old fashioned. There was nothing we could do. The religious parties had to stand by their agreement. Incidentally, this was the beginning of my distaste for religious party politics. But nothing could better illustrate the cultural imperialism of doctrinaire socialism.

Israel has another problem validating the cultures of its Arab populations, both Muslim and Christian. It has not done enough to make these minorities, including the children, feel that their cultures are validated—even if under the law they are equal. Of course, those living in the Palestinian territories are under their own educational, social and political agencies. There the problems are magnified by their policy of incitement and intentional alienation.

But this problem of cultural identity is now much wider. It threatens to undermine European society and create tensions that could well destroy it. The reaction of liberal individualism damages in that it allows societies to demand that citizens should ideally abandon their group identities in order to be “rights bearing citizens” rather than culturally autonomous. Young disaffected Muslim immigrants react with anger and violence to a situation in which they feel undereducated, underemployed, and under-respected.

In Britain 20 years ago, all immigrants from east of the Mediterranean were regarded as part of the Asian racial minority. Social policy was that a parentless or at-risk child was placed with someone of a racial minority. This meant that a Muslim child from Bangladesh would be placed with a black Christian from Jamaica rather than a white Muslim from the UK. Minority had to go with minority, regardless of religion. Multiculturalism (however one defines it) had not yet become the buzzword.

Indeed, courts in the UK have defined Judaism as a racial minority rather than a religious one. Governments, NGOs, even movie stars are all too busy pursuing their own ideological or personal agendas. They fail to see the damage they often cause by pursuing human rights as they define them without considering cultural and religious identities.

Ronen refers a lot to Levinas, whereas I prefer to go further back to the Torah. There, with regard to the “other”, it insists on a contractual obligation, to abandon paganism in exchange for equal civil rights. But the Torah goes further. It insists on understanding the nature, the soul, the characteristic of the other, the stranger. “And you must surely understand the soul of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) It is the level of understanding that comes from experiencing alienation that compels one to recognize the similar state in others. Also, the repeated coupling in the Torah of the terms Mishpat, justice, with Tsedek, moral value, underlines the importance of tempering justice with understanding and empathy.

There is a complication, of course. Any of us involved in education knows that one of the biggest problems is weighing sympathy for the miscreant and his or her background against the negative impact such a person may have on others and, indeed, on the wider society. This has now become a major issue in Europe, where moral sensitivity toward refugees has created challenging conditions for society at large. It has certainly been at the root of the debate in Israel on how to balance self-protection with sensitivity towards the occupied. Who is dong greater harm, one might wonder. Those who occupy or those who train children to hate?

Ronen does us the great service of forcing us to recognize that the child is dependent on others and therefore vulnerable (in the best of societies, let alone the worst). His great contribution is to insist that we consider the child’s sense of identity within a framework of other rights. We need to appreciate the security that comes when identity is reinforced and validated. And the insecurity that follows from its being ignored. I must admit to having a very high personal regard for Yair. But on its own merits, his work deserves wide recognition.

January 12, 2017


Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University has just published a book on empathy. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion raises some excellent questions. To put it simply, he argues that empathy is not a very good basis for making ethical decisions. The book has been widely reviewed and attacked.

But as any thinking person recognizes, it all depends on what you mean by empathy. There is a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Dictionary definitions say something like “Empathy: The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.” Whereas sympathy might be defined as “Sharing another’s emotions. An affinity or harmony.” Diffen.com helpfully differentiates by saying, “Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.”

Bloom is clearly following this distinction in which empathy goes much further than sympathy, and on the surface, he is right. Empathy only occurs in those moments when we share the emotional experience of another person. Empathy would cause a therapist treating a depressed person to also become depressed (even if a depressed person would probably empathize with another depressed person). Compassion is more appropriate than empathy. Compassion refers more to how one reacts to someone in pain or suffering, than how one actually feels. Bloom defines compassion as “concern for others, wanting their pain to go away, wanting their lives to improve—but without the shared emotional experience that's so central to empathy.” I may feel compassion for my torturer, sorry for him even. But I certainly will not empathize.

How often do we say, “I know exactly how you feel,” when we cannot possibly know unless we have experienced the same pain This is something we can rarely do because all we can do is extrapolate from our own feelings if we have suffered similarly. But that does not mean we are experiencing it in exactly the same way. We just can’t know because we cannot get inside another person to know what they feel.

But we say these things when we visit the sick or a house of mourning, because we want to be helpful, supportive, and emotionally present rather than scientifically or philosophically accurate and precise. Even if we have had similar experiences, we still can only extrapolate. We cannot know another’s feelings. Bloom argues that empathy is “biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.” It is logic, rather, that helps us derive a moral code. Sympathy helps add an important layer of reinforcement that can also modify the extent to which we enforce the law. Sympathy for a poor man stealing to support his hungry family for example will lead his not approve of stealing but to try to find help for them.

Bloom wants us to be more analytical and accurate, and that is why he argues for sympathy or compassion rather than empathy. As a philosophy graduate, I am inclined to agree with him. The trouble is the Torah does not seem to. Commands to love, neighbors or strangers surely imply more than sympathy. The Torah adds a layer onto justice and the law. Mishpat is the law. Chesed is kindness. Chessed is often linked to Mishpat in order to reinforce the idea of sympathy. But again one might think this is beyond sympathy.

But then how do we explain Exodus 23:9 saying, “You shall know the feeling (nefesh) of the stranger because you were strangers.” We are specifically commanded to remember what the experience was like. Nefesh literally means the being, the very soul of a person. Doesn’t this sound like empathy? Except of course it was a command given to people who may never have experienced slavery and alienation in Egypt beyond the generation of the Exodus. So, it cannot mean having had the same experience. So perhaps Bloom was wrong from a Jewish point of view to suggest that such deep feeling ought to have no place in legal decisions.

It was a review by the Anglo-Jewish Simon Baron-Cohen in the New York Times Book Review on December 30, 2016 that helped me clarify the issue. He opens his review thus:
“When I read about what happened in the West Bank Village of Duma on July 31, 2015, I immediately felt empathy. …a firebomb was thrown inside the home of a Palestinian family…18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh…burned to death. Within weeks, both parents…succumbed to their wounds and died. … I empathized with that Palestinian family despite my being Jewish.”
It’s true that most Jews felt revulsion and sympathy. Indeed, from the President of Israel downward expressions of horror, sympathy, and support were overwhelming. I am very pleased the criminal was caught, prosecuted and convicted. But I cannot think of anyone using the word empathy or its equivalent. Was this because the situation is so fraught and so much pain is experienced on both sides? And was it because when there crime goes the other way, the response is to had out sweets in celebration?

How unlike this year when:
“A Palestinian man stabbed and killed an Israeli teenage girl as she slept inside her home on Thursday in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. A civil security guard responding to the attack shot and killed the assailant at the scene. The terrorist, identified as Mohammad Tra'ayra, 19, from the nearby Palestinian village of Bani Na'im, jumped the settlement's perimeter fence and then broke into the isolated home, stabbing 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel in her sleep."
In this case the terrorist was applauded. He was given a hero’s burial, had a square named after him as a martyr, and his family received a generous pension from the Palestinian authority. Or last week when unarmed young Israelis were killed, the Palestinian authority encouraged celebration and promised a pension as a reward? So why, I ask, did not Simon Baron-Cohen close this one example out of the hundreds of thousands he might have chosen that consisted of say, Muslims killing Muslims? Or give that example from Syria where Assad’s gangsters have raped little children and castrated young boys?

Of course, I thought, here is another example of a Jews eager to burnish their Left-Wing credentials. Empathy here means more than sympathy. It is an assertion of political loyalties and priorities. That, to me, proves that Bloom is right. You see, I sympathize with suffering; I can want to see suffering assuaged and conflict resolved. But I cannot empathize with a cause that seeks to destroy mine. Although I do not support settlements, when a political argument is supported with violence, I cannot empathize, because I am a potential target too. Some might argue one should but my religious values do not.

When the Torah talks about understanding the soul of the stranger and insists that we treat the stranger as one of us, that is when he or she identifies and comes to live within the community. When we become partners in society. But when the stranger is positively trying to destroy your community, there is no such exhortation. That helps draw a line between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is not just recognizing that something awful has happened. It is when you can identify in almost every way with the object of your empathy and there is a reciprocal relationship.

I do not know what any particular Palestinian or ISIS sympathizer feels towards Jews. But as a group I know they are not favorably inclined. They have been indoctrinated to dislike Jews. I understand this. I understand their antipathy, and I sympathize with their predicament. But I cannot empathize, because they cannot empathize with me. Neither can I empathize with those on any side who behave inhumanly or dehumanize others.

I wonder if it isn’t precisely because Judaism emphasizes care, concern, and sympathy that so often some Jews have this tendency to go too far in expressing empathy and sympathy, even when it is to our detriment.

January 05, 2017

Poor in Jerusalem

After I graduated from Cambridge University, I went to study at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The yeshiva occupied a six-story building clad in Jerusalem stone, in Beyt Yisrael. It was a small industrial quarter sandwiched between Meah Shearim and the Mandelbaum Gate. In those pre-1967 days the Mandlebaum Gate was the crossing point between , between West Jerusalem, the New City, and East Jerusalem, the Old City which was then occupied by Jordan and under the control of the Jordanian Legion. The Jordanian Legion was an army built, financed, and led by the British under the command (until 1956) of the Englishman John Glubb, known as Glubb Pasha. A concrete wall divided the two parts of the city, and one would often see Jordanian soldiers patrolling the ramparts of the Old City. Sometimes they fired seemingly at random into the New City.

During the 1967 War, the yeshiva was shelled as the students sat down in the subterranean dining room. You can still see the patched brickwork on the western façade where it was hit. Afterwards Jerusalem changed dramatically, as the unified city opened up to new vistas and populations. But before the war, the city was so small it seemed everyone knew everyone else. Mir was in pretty run-down area, and some of the destitute lived in makeshift huts and cardboard shelters right up into no-mans land.

The large study hall, the Beys HaMedrash, was packed throughout the day. It was always stuffy and very noisy as everyone argued and shouted or sang as an aid to concentration, trying to solve the complex problems in the Gemara. In summer the haze was compounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Everyone in those days smoked. In winter it was made even worse by a large paraffin (kerosene) stove in the middle of the hall, with a flue that climbed up to a small opening in the roof. It radiated fumes that stank but were at least warm, as the cold winds swept around and through the wet stones of the building.

Throughout the day as we studied, beggars kept up a constant stream, clinking the coins in their hands under our noses, as a way of asking for donations as they passed up and down the gangways between the rows of benches and shtenders. Some were well-dressed and even elegant. Others in smelly rags and clearly down and out. We would have rows of small coins ready at hand to dispense until they ran out.

In those days, most of the students in Mir were married. They went home to sleep. So by the night study session only a few remained. Mainly those who, like me, actually slept in a dormitory in the building. And by midnight in winter time, the hall was all but empty, except for a few smelly bodies who had crept in to lie on the benches and enjoy some warmth from the stove during the bitter winter nights. I often stayed up late studying. I had so much to catch up with. I was surrounded by those who had studied Torah all their lives, day in and day out, whereas I had frittered so many years, some of it on vanities and others on academic study.

Amongst those who came in for warmth was an elderly man in old tattered clothes that he never changed and shoes with holes in them. Most of the time he dozed by the warmth. But when he was awake, he would open a Chumash and seem to be studying. We sat as far away from him as we could, because he really stank. On occasion we would engage him in a brief conversation, but he was rarely lucid. He never asked for money, but he would accept anything we gave him.

I recall one late night when he was present. It was late and cold, and into the hall bounced a well-known beggar, one of the professional set, and started clinking his hand for donations. The poor old man rose from his sleeping position and fumbled around under his clothes. He took out an old worn leather purse and found a grush, about a ha’penny, a cent, and gave it to the beggar. To my surprise and anger, the fellow took it. I was amazed. I did not know anyone poorer or more destitute than that poor man, and yet he still gave to a much better-dressed and better-off man than he was. I went over to him. I asked him, “Why did you give your money to him? You know he doesn’t need it as much as you.”

He looked at me and smiled. He said, “The Torah commands everyone to give charity. Me, as well.”

A week later the old man was not there where he usually lay late at night. Nor was he there the following night, which was very, very cold. In the morning, a fellow student and I wondered where he was. We asked around. No one seemed to know. But the kitchen helper said he thought he might be living amongst the huts and shelters near the border. We went in search of him. Eventually we found him, covered in cardboard and newspapers, in the cellar of an abandoned building. He was dead. We ran to the burial society, and they went and picked his body up.

I will never forget that old man. I have never gone without food or shelter. I give charity, but never to the extent that he did. Whenever I think of him, I feel profound sadness that there is such destitution. I regret that I didn’t do more. But at the same time, I feel profound gratitude for having known him. Most of us have no idea how spoilt we are. This man remains someone I respected for his simplicity and nobility even in the depths of destitution. He was an unknown, silent Jew.

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.