June 30, 2016

Guns

I know I am expected to write about Brexit this week—-a classic conflict between a great concept and a corrupt, incompetent, bureaucratic misexecution of it. But I won’t, because it’s too early to know how it is going to play out.

Instead I turn to another issue of conflicting worldviews. I have written before that I simply do not understand America’s attitude toward guns. There are certain American loves, like capital punishment, that a Brit does not get. I know it is a cultural dissonance, and I do not expect my gun-loving friends to understand my position either. Whatever weird justifications are offered—it's the American constitution; right to self-defense; guns don’t kill, people do—nothing I have heard brings me any closer to understanding the lunacy that leads to so many deaths each year (the majority of which are cause by people they know and often by accidents).

Anyone familiar with the issue in halacha (Talmud Avodah Zara 15b-16a, Rambam Hilchot Rotzeach, etc.) will know that the dominant position is that one does not distribute dangerous weapons to people who may misuse them. A human is always regarded as potentially dangerous. The counterargument of self-defense only pertains where there is no reliable system of law and order, and that’s the let out that all vigilantes claim. So there’s a screw loose in my brain, but I am in good company.

The National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobby groups in the USA, and it has almost every Republican Senator in its pocket. Every time there is a mass murder, outrage explodes; presidents promise, huff and puff, beg, and even cry for limited restrictions. The NRA turns its back and ensures that no law is passed. No matter how often advocates of minimal restrictions say they are not challenging the ancient, barbaric, even Neanderthal (apologies to Neanderthals) right of Americans to possess guns, no matter what limitations, however anodyne, they advocate. The gun lobby blocks any reasonable proposal on principle.

Once again after Orlando there was another drive to contain this madness.

You won’t believe this, but the law in the USA allows someone who is banned from flying because he or she is regarded as a security risk to buy a high-powered multi-magazine weapon. Now you would have thought the NRA, made up largely of xenophobic, backwoods, reactionary yahoos, might just get a wee bit worked up if a jihad-proclaiming supporter of ISIS would be allowed to buy a weapon of mass murder. But no. The fanatics of the NRA won’t even change that. Because they fear if you give an inch the crazy leftist anti-gun lobby will take the whole of your arm and your genitals too!

BBC report of June 21st:
“The US Senate has rejected plans to tighten gun controls, including the restriction of weapons sales to people on terrorism watch lists. Four proposals were brought before the Senate after 49 people died in an attack on a gay nightclub in Florida. Democratic and Republican senators voted along party lines, blocking each other's bills.

Senators strongly disagreed about how to prevent more attacks happening in future.

Republican Senator John Cornyn said: 'Our colleagues want to make this about gun control when what we should be making this about is the fight to eliminate the Islamic extremism that is the root cause for what happened in Orlando.

'My colleagues in many ways want to treat the symptoms without fighting the disease.'

“For her part, Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski said: 'Why is it we would go through such incredible scrutiny to board an airplane to protect me against terrorist, and yet we have no scrutiny of the people on the terrorist watch list to be able to buy a gun?'

“Republicans and members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) complained that the bills put forward by the Democrats violated the constitutional right to bear arms. They are concerned that without enough 'due process', law-abiding Americans wrongly named on watch lists would be prevented from buying weapons. Democrats said the Republican proposals were too weak.

“In the US, gun dealers are licensed by the federal government. People can be prevented from buying weapons if they have mental health problems or are guilty of serious crimes, but there is no specific prohibition for those on the terrorism watch list. There are currently about one million people on that list. Besides, there are other ways to buy guns - at gun shows, or from a private vendor online - that do not require any background checks altogether.

"The Senate voted down legislation that would have closed a gun show loophole and expanded background checks to cover private sales.

"Also rejected were:
  • A bill to ban suspects on terrorism watch lists from buying guns 
  • A bill (backed by the NRA) that would allow the US attorney general to delay a gun purchase by a known or suspected terrorist, but prosecutors would need to convince a judge of the would-be-buyer's connection to terrorism within three days    
  • A bill that would alert the FBI to terrorism suspects who have purchased a gun, without blocking the purchase outright.”
Now I ask you who is mad? How can a country as dysfunctional and a legislatively as paralyzed as this survive? It really makes one wonder whether democracy must be one of the worst forms of government ever invented. But for all of this, America is still one of, if not THE place in the world where most others would like to live. Even those who want to blow us up would rather be here than there, if we let them choose!

Democracy is a mess, but it’s a better mess than some other forms of either incompetent or venal rule. So I guess I just have to put up with all these crazy, gun-loving, Montana backwoodsmen and -women. Which is, after all, what a truly democratic society must allow for, even when it does make crazy decisions.

Which leads me back to Brexit, of course.

June 23, 2016

The Devil and The Jews

In 1943, even before the full story of Nazi inhumanity was revealed, Joshua Trachtenberg published The Devil and the Jews, a brilliant analysis of how the Christian world turned Jews and Judaism into a version of evil totally detached from reality. People who had never met Jews believed they poisoned wells, killed children for their blood, spread diseases. By dehumanizing Jews, Christians transformed them turned into the symbol of evil. Islam followed. The blood libel migrated. Jews were accused this week of poisoning wells. Jews living under Islam transmitted impurity. Stoning the devil in Mecca was stoning the Jews by proxy. All this explains the way popular antisemitism retains its illogical grip on much of the world, religious and secular. Blame the Yids. It has metastasized into the minds of left and right.

A well-known English journalist (with a Jewish name, though not Jewish) has been writing about the moral bankruptcy of the left ever since his book What’s Left?: How the Left Lost its Way came out in 2007. More recently he has written about how left-wing anti-Semitism has forced him to identify with Jews. Here are a few extracts:

“It took me 40 years to become a Jew. … Whether the antisemitic conspiracy theory is deployed by German Nazis or Arab dictators, French anti-Dreyfusards or Saudi clerics, the argument is always the same. Democracy, an independent judiciary, equal human rights, freedom of speech and publication—all these ‘supposed’ freedoms—are nothing but swindles that hide the machinations of the secret Jewish rulers of the world. …the Labour party [in the UK] is in danger of becoming as tainted as UKIP by the racists it attracts.

“…[many] leftwing activists [believe that w]estern governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The ‘Israel lobby’ controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the ‘root cause’ of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State. Polite racism turns the Jews, once again, into demons with the supernatural power to manipulate and destroy nations. Or as the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström … explained recently, Islamist attacks in Paris were the fault of Israeli occupiers in the West Bank.

“Or consider the otherwise bizarre indulgence of ultra-right religious extremists by people who otherwise describe themselves as liberals and leftists. The belief that Jews fuel radical Islam allows them to overlook superstition and the tyrannical denial of equal rights. They’re against Israel and that’s all that matters.

“As someone who warned in the 00s about the growing darkness on the left, I am pessimistic about the chances of change. If you keep shouting ‘fire’ and the fire brigade never comes, you tend to assume the house will burn to the ground.”

That, I am afraid, is the reality of left-wing dogma everywhere today. Israel is the devil. And not a few Jews and former Jews agree, as they did in the middle Ages. Nick Cohen is pessimistic. He sees the alliance between the Left and Islam in Europe as unstoppable and incapable of granting Israel a fair hearing. I recognize the reality. But I am not so pessimistic.

An alternative narrative comes from Martin Kramer; in Foreign Affairs (Israel and the Post-American Middle East: Why the Status Quo Is Sustainable) he writes:

“Israel faces all manner of potential threats and challenges, but never has it been more thoroughly prepared to meet them. The notion popular among some Israeli pundits that their compatriots live in a perpetual state of paralyzing fear misleads both Israel’s allies and its adversaries. Israel’s leaders are cautious but confident, not easily panicked, and practiced in the very long game that everyone plays in the Middle East. Nothing leaves them so unmoved as the vacuous mantra that the status quo is unsustainable. Israel’s survival has always depended on its willingness to sustain the status quo …such resolve has served Israel well over time.

“Even as Israel seeks to deepen the United States’ commitment in the short term, it knows that the unshakable bond won’t last in perpetuity. This is a lesson of history. The leaders of the Zionist movement always sought to ally their project with the dominant power of the day, but they had lived through too much European history to think that great power is ever abiding.

“They were alone during the 1930s, when the gates of the United States were closed to them. They were alone during the Holocaust, when the United States awoke too late. They were alone in 1948, when the United States placed Israel under an arms embargo, and in 1967, when a U.S. president explicitly told the Israelis that if they went to war, they would be alone.

“[Over the next 50 years] large swaths of the Middle East will be left to their fate, to dissolve and re-form in unpredictable ways. Israel may be asked by weaker neighbors to extend its security net to include them, as it has done for decades for Jordan. Arab concern about Iran is already doing more to normalize Israel in the region than the ever-elusive and ever-inconclusive peace process. Israel … will loom like a pillar of regional stability—not only for its own people but also for its neighbors, threatened by a rising tide of political fragmentation, economic contraction, radical Islam, and sectarian hatred.

“Although Israel has made plenty of tactical mistakes, it is hard to argue that its strategy has been anything but a success. … Only if Israel’s adversaries conclude that Israel can sustain the status quo indefinitely—Israel’s military supremacy, its economic advantage, and, yes, its occupation—is there any hope that they will reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

“Statements like Obama’s don’t sway Israel’s government, which knows better, but they do fuel Arab and Iranian rejection of Israel among those who believe that the United States no longer has Israel’s back. … Israel is well positioned to sustain the status quo all by itself. Its long-term strategy is predicated on it.”

So as I said last week, I am not worried for our survival.

Meanwhile Europe and the USA have far bigger self-inflicted internal problems than they realize. In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Mohed Altrad, himself a refugee from Syria to France, a billionaire, PhD, novelist, and World Entrepreneur of the Year, warns that millions of refugees have a basic cultural mindset that is anti-Western and anti-Semitic. Like them, he was educated to hate the West and to kill Jews. Eventually he realized that hatred was self-defeating. The path to success was to change his attitude and stop blaming others. His is a success story. But most will not follow his example. He strongly believes the West must insist on immigrants adjusting to Western values rather than the West conceding to theirs.

Hatred of the other just because he or she is different is a poison wherever it appears. When you add religion, it becomes overwhelmingly evil. This is the toxic mix we are encountering everywhere. No community, no religion is immune. Wherever it rears its head, it must be dealt with or we are all lost.

June 16, 2016

Tolerance

Tolerance only works if it goes both ways.

At Muhammad Ali’s funeral, Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun Magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave a stirring speech that was roundly applauded. I agree with almost everything he said. We must stop victimizing, generalizing, and hating people who are different in color, creed, and practice. We live in a world where power corrupts. Inequality and exploitation are everywhere and infiltrate every ideology, religion, and creed. Racism, victimization, greed, and violence pervade every society. Obviously, some more than others. Otherwise no one would ever want to move to a different country for abetter quality of life and greater freedom.

The message that Rabbi Lerner advocated was the message of every idealist. We must love our neighbors. Do unto others as we would be done by. Yet for some reason, despite technological, scientific, and humanitarian progress, despite a reduction in poverty, an increase in food production, welfare systems, huge charitable enterprises, and benevolence, we are still way, way off achieving what we have been preaching. We still live in a world of either imperfect or evil regimes. But we still yearn for freedom, equality, friendship, and benevolence. We like the good. But we are not all capable of pursuing it.

Muhammad Ali was a remarkable character as well as a brilliant athlete. No one is perfect. Not even him. He picked up too many anti-white and anti-Zionist hate tropes from mentors Malcolm X and Farrakhan. But he fought for his people and for freedom. How ironic that he had a Jewish grandson and went to his bar mitzvah. But still, it is so important, and after Orlando even more so, to use every opportunity to speak out against racism and prejudice and that was what Rabbi Lerner rightly did.

I was pleased that he went to the funeral. It was, in its way, a Kiddush HaShem, even if he had absolutely no right to say he was representing American Jewry. It seems any rabbi who gets exposure claims that nowadays. But I am sorry he so overtly politicized his message by spouting left-wing Bernie nostra as if they would solve the problems of the world, let alone America.

Governments that want to create a utopia often have to concede that they either do not have the financial means or the population to achieve it. We all want it in theory, on our terms. Since the days of Plato and his Republic, we have dreamed and planned, but we are still a long way off. With our societies we have the idealists and the pragmatists, the capitalists and the socialists, and no one system is perfect or has ever been. But still we must dream, we should dream, and we need to be reminded of our dreams.

In all my days in the rabbinate, whenever I was stuck for a sermon I knew I could always fall back on preaching ideals, excoriating those who betray our ideals, standing against hypocrisy. And after every such sermon someone would always come up to me and say, “Rabbi, great sermon, you really gave it to them today.” Or words to that effect. It was always, “You told them.” It was never, “You told me.”

On the same day as Ali’s funeral, an American Muslim wrote in the New York Times about how his young daughter was picked on in a restaurant for wearing a headscarf. He ended by wondering why we hate people for their religion or race. Yes, of course I agreed, because I wonder why so many Muslims and Christians still hate Jews for being Jews, or hate people of different sexual orientation. We are so good at seeing the mote in the eyes of others, but not the beam in our own. Or as the Talmud says )Bava Batra 15b), “Don’t tell me to do something about my toothpick when you have a whole plank of wood to deal with.”

So I ask myself, why in his speech did Lerner have to focus on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and not Sunni Shia internecine conflicts which Ali felt equally strongly about, human rights in China and Russia, occupation in Tibet, Kashmir, or West Sahara, or Turkey’s treatment of Kurds or North Korea? Why did he not excoriate the left wing ideology that Chavez and Maduro have destroyed Venezuela with? Or indeed Cuba? Does he think there is no need for self-examination other than for Jews? Why no reciprocity? Did Israel start the wars? Do Israelis really not want peace desperately? Is there no other side to the argument?

We now live in a world of rights. Do not Jews have rights too? Were Rabbi Lerner’s comments about Netanyahu just to pander to an audience that, at core, is now sadly so anti-Israel and anti-Semitic as to deny rights to Jews to defend themselves? he could have said that almost half of Israel opposes many of his policies and rhetoric.He spoke about how once Jew stood shoulder-to-shoulder with black civil rights leaders. He did not speak about why today anti-Semitism is so prevalent in black societies. Why Black Lives Matter has chosen to add Palestine to their agenda rather than any one of the other humanitarian causes with far greater casualties elsewhere in the world today. If Martin Luther King had been present, he would not have been so one-sided.

Of course the Israeli Left, indeed any Left, has the right and should have the right to take whatever side it wants to. Of course excess, corruption, and inhumanity must be addressed. But one who excoriates Jews wherever they are, should have the honesty and morality to point out another point of view others political correctness and one sidedness simply debases the debate. Why does no one mention the protests in Palestinian territory against the policies of their dogmatists and kleptocracy? When you pick on just one example, on just one argument, that is pure prejudice.

Not only, but look at how Lerner’s speech was reported—not as a critique of racism or prejudice wherever it comes from.Look on the internet and see the headlines “Rabbi Slams Israel in Muhammad Ali Funeral Speech.” Yes, just more fodder for the Jew-haters. He could have made all his major ethical points without having to pander to the tub-thumping anti-Israel, anti-Jewish amen chorus that has now taken over the Left (not to mention the Right) wherever it exists.

The same trope. Remove Israel and the Middle East will be peaceful. Sunni and Shia will love each other, as well as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. The Left has always had rose-colored spectacles. Remove the Kulaks, then the aristocrats, then the bourgeoisie, then the Jews, and Russia will be paradise. Remove capitalists, and we will live in heaven. Remove religion, and we will get in with each other, make love, and we will all live happily ever after.

Life is not like that. I am glad Rabbi Lerner stands for what he stands. We need contrarians and prophets. But my experience tells me that any dogma can be dangerous, any one sided argument is doomed.

All I seek is balance. By all means, criticize Netanyahu if you also criticize Abu Mazen. By all means attack Israel if you also attack Hamas, Hezbollah, and all the others who put war above human needs and human rights. Rabbi Lerner can and should demand rights. But I can demand mine too.

June 09, 2016

Shavuot 2016 - Torah

It was the genius of Babylonian Jewry to meet the challenges of exile 2,500 years ago. Originally Judaism was a fragile community of rival tribes settled in a specific land. Its public religious rituals were based on its agricultural seasons and tithes. It had a central sanctuary, with its priests and sacrifices, and a system of ritual purity. It had its civil laws and judiciary.In addition there were all the laws required of one on a personal level; the general ethical imperatives, charity, and how one ran one’s home and family. The relationship with God was personal. What kept the community together (in theory) was everyone gathering in Jerusalem on the three pilgrimage festivals.

When the Children of Israel lost their land and sanctuary what was left? What was going to keep the community together? This was when the synagogue, the Beit Knesset and Beit Midrash, began as places for the Jews to gather. But what did they do there? Not pray. That was something personal that one did in one’s own home in one’s own time. Daniel records that he went to his loft three times a day and turned towards Jerusalem to pray.

Babylon produced the sofrim, the scribes. Back home they had been just that, skilled in reading, writing, and recording. In Babylon they turned into the scholars, the teachers. What one did in the synagogues was pore over the sacred texts, study, and teach. The term “Knesset” means to get together. And “Midrash" means to study. That was how Judaism re-grouped and survived. That was its secret weapon.

The process of transformation took time. When Jews returned under Cyrus, the Temple was rebuilt and all those earlier laws were reinstated. Except now you had two communities, those in the Diaspora who had one set of routines and those in Israel who had another. And in Israel the Priesthood and the sofrim (forerunners of the rabbis) coexisted in competition and uneasy truce. For another 400 years or so the two systems coexisted. Then in 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and Jerusalem. The priests lost their roles. The sects soon disappeared. The rabbis were left standing as the sole bearers of the tradition. Then, through the oral law, the Talmud, the face of Judaism that we recognize today emerged.

Thus the festival of Shavuot was transformed. From being a harvest festival 49 days after the first sheaf of barley was dedicated in the Temple on the first day of Pesach, it was transformed into the celebration of the Sinai experience of Torah. As the diaspora turned into an extended hell for Jews—oppressed, suppressed, enslaved, and murdered—their numbers began to dwindle, and many preferred to lose their Jewish identity than to suffer. It is argued that external oppression was responsible for keeping the Jewish people going. But I find that illogical, since large numbers of Jews were always able to escape that oppression by choosing another, less stressful way of life.

What really kept Judaism alive was Torah study. It was not just the value of study itself. It was also that you were trained to read, to use your brain in disciplined learning. And what’s more, to survive and earn a living you had to combine the physical and the scientific with the mystical and the paranormal. This achieved two things. It taught one to appreciate God’s universe and, not unimportantly, to have skills to survive. All of this contributed to an evolutionary survival of the fittest, the brightest, the most accomplished. But the question is, accomplished in what? In the study itself or in the byproduct of learning how to survive in an unfriendly world?

This issue is still debated today, and it lies at the root of the miracle of Jewish survival, of such small numbers having so much success (sure, we have our failures too). No wonder so many believe we are the Devil incarnate. How else can you explain what we have achieved against such numerical odds? Perhaps that is precisely why we are singled out for so much anti Semitism.

In the Talmud there is a debate as to whether study is more important than prayer. Prayer represents the religious spiritual side, which is most often identified with the religious spirit. It focuses on the relationship with God. But for many Jews that is not so compelling; God is too intangible, too abstract. Study, on the other hand, is more substantial in the cognitive sense. It is an intellectual amassing of information and the immersion in a tradition. The intellectual prowess the Greek philosophers so revered as the way to find truth was, in Judaism, the process of study and intellectual debate.

This debate remains unresolved. But the famous line goes that “study is greater because it leads to action.” You know what is required and how to do it. So much alienation in Judaism today is because so many Jews are so painfully ignorant. They have no idea what Judaism really is. They are like children whose only mathematical education ended in kindergarten.

There is another major issue. Should the study of Torah be all one needs or not? The rabbis of the Talmud were divided on almost every issue, including this one. We have always loved to argue. Some said that if prayer, encounter with God, was the core of religion, this surely meant that we should pray as much as possible. Others argued that study itself was an act of religious worship (Shabbat 11a).

Now if study was the way towards the good life and to God, should not one study all day long? The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) tells the story of how Rebi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son had to hide in a cave from the Romans for twelve years. They spent their time in study and meditation. When they were told the threat had passed, and they came out they could not understand how ordinary people were sowing, ploughing, and reaping instead of studying Torah. They became a threat to normal life. A heavenly voice said, “You seem to want to destroy My world.” So they were sent back into the cave to think again. God was none too happy.

Another text the Talmud says, “It is written, ‘The words of Torah will never depart from your lips.’ Can this be meant literally? The Torah also says you must gather your corn so that you can eat.” You have to earn a living. You fix specific times to study, and work when you need to. So says Rebi Yishmael. But Rebi Shimon Bar Yochai said that if you do that, you will never study Torah. Instead one should study all the time, and if one is pious someone else will make a living for you.” That, of course, is the justification and hope for the hundreds of thousands of Torah scholars who do nothing else. The text tellingly goes on to say that “many tried it Rebi Shimon’s way and did not succeed. But many tried it Rebi Yishmael’s and they did succeed (Brachot 35b).

Not everyone is cut out for a life of constant study (intellectually or temperamentally) and the society simply cannot function if everyone sits and studies all day long. Like Plato’s republic, someone has to do the work! Yet studying Torah remains the single most significant difference between Jews who adhere to tradition and those who do not; between those who pass something onto the next generation and those who fail to. Everyone has to learn Torah to whatever degree he or she is able to. The Torah requires of us that we study and teach our children. That was the crucial and massive contribution of the rabbis not to allow this to be the preserve of an elite, but the obligation on everyone. That is why we start teaching our children to read Hebrew as early as possible. That is why we are called the People of the Book. And that is what Shavuot celebrates. We all have an obligation to keep on studying. Some more, some less. That is the best answer we have, and have always have had, to our enemies.

June 02, 2016

Al-Farhud

This week we recall the tragedy of al-Farhud. The pogrom against the Jewish population of Baghdad, Iraq, on June 1 and 2, 1941. The riots followed the collapse of the pro-Nazi government of Rashid Ali. Over 180 Jews were killed and 1,000 raped and injured. Nine hundred Jewish homes were destroyed.

Al-Farhud was just one more example of the way Jews suffered under their hosts. In the Arab Buraq Uprising of 1929 and in the Arab riots from 1936 to 1939, defenseless women, children, and rabbinical students were massacred. Long before a Jewish state. And the anti-Semitic murder, rape, and looting that followed across the Arab world in 1948 only underlined the degree of popular hatred. Were all Arabs and Muslims Jew-haters? Of course not, then or now. But the virus was there and remains, poisoning cultures and religions and reiterating the need for Jewish self-determination. The “Jewish Question” attracts irrationally disproportionate attention and odium today, as much as it did a hundred years ago. But facts, history, can be forgotten, distorted, and twisted. Can we do anything about it?

In Israel’s struggle for independence there were indeed “Jewish terrorists”. Except that they were roundly condemned by all the main Jewish authorities and representatives, not idolized or rewarded. Terrorism rarely succeeds by itself. That was not what drove the British out of Israel. Rather, as with India, Cyprus, and Kenya after the Second World War, Britain lost the means and the morale to maintain its political control militarily. Israel was not an imperialist invasion, but a Jewish liberation movement.

The ongoing conflict is being perpetuated by a refusal to accept reality or to engage in civilized debate. It is not just in the Middle East. It is everywhere. Our world is the world of form, not content. Calm, rational argument and discussion is disregarded in favor of ideological posturing, slogans, and abuse. No longer are universities, or even most of the media, places where one finds unbiased analysis or calm debate. Wherever you turn opposing sides are at each other’s throats.

Democracy, it seems, is only acceptable when you agree with the results. So no debate is possible, because whenever one hears a point of view one does not like, it is dismissed, shouted down, or childish terms of abuse are used to disparage one’s opponent. What hope then is there for civilized debate? Intellectually, we now live in the world of George Orwell’s 1984 doublespeak. Politicians, activists spout nonsensical, contradictory ideas and use the bully pulpit to try to impose politically correct (and incorrect) views on others. Or win elections in America by insulting opponents. We are not dealing with logic.

And this affects the approach to Israel. If Israel is more right-wing today, it is because in a democratic country people are allowed to vote as they feel. Most Israelis vote for security precisely because they do not wish to go into exile again or return to subservience. Those who experienced life under Islam remember what they went through. Whether you or I approve is irrelevant. It is their democratic choice. And the more Israel is attacked, whether physically or politically, the less it will be inclined to concede.

The doomsayers all argue that Israel cannot survive. It can and will. New generations of deeply committed young men and women are being born and bred to love their land and to want to fight to be allowed to live there in peace. This is not a numbers game. It is one of who has most to lose. I hate violence with a passion. But I believe we have the right to fight for what we believe in. I do however distinguish between offensive violence and defensive. Israel is fighting an existential battle for its security and has the right to take measures to protect itself regardless of whether the outside world agrees or how they choose to define reasonable measures.

What happens when debate is just not possible? It was assumed that Israel could be vindicated by providing relevant information, that anti-Israel activists were misrepresenting reality by lying or omitting relevant facts, or that there were other countries that deserved to be targeted while Israel alone was picked out for criticism and attack. But as no one is interested in being fair. Israel tended to dismiss the value of spending resources on propaganda or Public Relations, because it felt that physical survival was more important than trying to win over fickle public opinion. Besides, they believed, nothing they could do or say would make any difference.

But there is change in the air. The Algemeiner has an article on the attempts to combat misinformation and dishonesty--Pushing Back Against BDS Movement.

In an article entitled Combating Anti-Israelism and Boycotts, written by a non-Jewish academic for the Gatestone Institute, Malcolm Lowe argues that Israel supporters were wrong to try to react to ideological campaigns with rational or historical arguments. Because the opposing minds were too closed, too dogmatic to listen. Opponents of Israel were disrupting concerts and exhibitions and turning universities into places where Jews feel under assault. Fighting back by arguing or countering false claims was getting nowhere. Fortunately resources are now being marshaled to fight back more effectively.

As a result of legal tactics, France, despite its complicated relationship to Israel, deserves credit for introducing anti-boycott legislation already in 2003, under which various assaults on Israel and Israeli products have been prosecuted successfully. Even without laws specifically banning boycotts, existing laws in many countries provide opportunities to punish anti-Israel activists. Attempts to arrest Israelis abroad have died out. It is possible to give a dose of the same medicine back.

In Sweden the boycotters were boycotted. Publicizing comprehensive lists of people who have signed on to the boycott enables retaliation. Canary Mission compiles biographies of activists, teachers, and students to facilitate counter-boycotts. When performers call for a cultural boycott of Israel, a list of far more famous performers who have appeared in Israel can be produced. Counter-publicity makes people and institutions hesitate to become anti-Israel for fear of attracting unwelcome attention.

Similarly, churches, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the British Methodists, whose leadership has endorsed boycotts of Israel can be derided as ineffectual and self-defeating. Agitation brings Palestinians no benefits and leaves Israelis unaffected. As a result of misdirecting energy towards a debatable moral campaign, more significant ethical and humanitarian causes such as emigration, Syria, and central Africa are being ignored. Meanwhile vast sums uphold a Palestinian kleptocracy that perpetuates violence and prefers spending on arms rather than jobs and housing for its own people. These are examples of Lowe’s counter-tactics.

I understand those movements who highlight things that go wrong in Israel. I have less respect for Israeli self-hatred directed at other Israelis. I admire those moderate Israeli advocates who use the law to ensure that the other side of the story is known too, as does Shurat Hadin. We may be few, but we need to be active in asserting that Israel wants peace—to carry placards, to demonstrate, to be a firm but polite counter-presence in the face of street violence, racist language, mob tactics, and aggression. The risks of violence are great. But the risks of silence are greater.

However we should also remember the Farhud and honor its victims. I stand by my belief that any occupation is unhealthy and oppressive, no matter how benevolent. Even if some Israelis and the Palestinians refuse terms for peace, we must continue to try our best to look for leadership that will. But in the end, as the Bible says, God is not in the bluster or the violence. God is in the “small quiet voice”. And we too have an obligation to remember our victims.

May 26, 2016

Corruption in Sport

The end of another soccer season. I used to be a fanatical supporter of Manchester United. During my youth, soccer was my first love. Manchester United was the altar at which I worshipped. Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but not much. When the phenomenal, youthful, talented team, the Busby Boys, were all but wiped out in the Munich air crash in 1958, I wore a black armband every time I played for my school team! Manu took talented kids from the Celtic fringes, and built them into a perfect example of how the “beautiful game” should be played. No violence, no aggression, no pulling shirts, “professional fouls”, faking injury, or falling in the box. Just pure talent and discipline, with exemplary, gentlemanly behavior. Not a Saturday night went by when I didn't dash to watch Match of the Day to see them play.

Eventually things changed. Alex Ferguson, the last great manager kept the flame alive for as long as he could. But in the end market forces won. They brought in stars from European countries. They even employed foreign managers. Nowadays their players are as tattooed, as temperamental, and as boring as almost every other club in the land. Where is the ideal? The honor? The purity? Gone, all gone. The same bunch of crude mercenaries as everyone else. The “beautiful game” is now just another place where greedy humans have taken a sport and turned it into a corrupt spectacle.

We have long known how corrupt the world body FIFA has been. Sepp Blatter was an obvious crook 20 years ago. The disease spread through the whole of the organization, from top to bottom. Allegations even go back as far as 1991. Now there are 20 total indictments and 47 counts. Wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering to name a few. Reaching well over $150,000,000. You can read more about it here: http://www.sportsmanagementdegreehub.com/fifa/.  

Cricket has been brought low by dishonest players and managers and betting scandals, mainly on the Indian subcontinent. Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France cycling victories for breaking the law on banned substances.

It came as no surprise when last year the World Anti-Doping Agency said that Russia should be banned from athletics competition. But equally, no one expected the IAAF to ban Russia from the upcoming Olympic Games. After all, they were implicated by WADA’s report. It would be like Mafia Dons excluding other lesser gangsters from casinos on the grounds that they were crooks. Besides, even in Greek times the Olympic games were riddled with bribery and cheating. And the horrific results of how East Germany, until it fell in 1989, used to destroy human lives through their state-run drug programs showed how widespread cheating always was on a national and international level.

Top Russian officials resigned in December, after the World Anti-Doping Agency released a report detailing the state-backed system in Russia of cheating in the Olympics and other international sports competitions. Last February a former director of the disgraced Russian Anti-Doping Agency died unexpectedly, mysteriously. He was the second former top official of the agency to die within a month.

The director of the Russia’s anti-doping laboratory at the time of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi revealed that Russia had a carefully planned state-run doping program designed to ensure their dominance at the Olympics. Dozens of Russian athletes at Sochi were involved, including at least 15 medal winners, he said. Will anything be done? Don’t bet on it. Similar charges are being made against Chinese athletes. As the saying goes, “Sport is just warfare using other means.”

The fact is that sport is a metaphor. Something that seems harmless enough, even beneficial, but is ruined by human corruption, specifically money and power. Every single great ideology, including every religion that has ever appeared on the human scene, has ended up distorting its original vision, no matter how caring, loving and touchy feely it may have started out. People like to blame religion, politics, or whatever, but in reality it is human greed that ruins everything. This is precisely why the Ten Commandments, for all its great principles, end improbably with the law against envy, against wanting to have something that someone else has.

As it goes with sport, so it goes with religion. As much as I am disillusioned with sport, so I am with religion (but I still play them both, regardless). Wherever I look I see outwardly religious Jews (and every other religion) putting money and power before ethics and humane behavior, and turning a blind eye to financial, sexual, and political corruption. Not a day goes by without another outwardly very religious person found guilty of financial corruption, using politics to gain material ends, deceiving, and taking advantage of the naïve, the credulous, and the desperate. And of course politics is even worse because there is more at stake.

Yet for all that, probably the majority are still good, religious, spiritual, charitable, caring rabbis, politicians, and lay people. They do not make the news. Let us remember that headlines are made of sinners, rarely saints. We humans can both elevate and desecrate.

So thank goodness for the amateurs, the nonprofessionals, who play sport for the fun, not to win at all costs, but simply to enjoy playing the “beautiful game”. And let us admire, not the big noisy shots in religion who practice it as “a spade to dig with”, but those modest and private good people who keep this world from tearing itself apart. Another season, another good deed, you have got to be an optimist!

May 19, 2016

Good Samaritan

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death late one night in Queens, New York by Winton Mosely who said that he simply wanted to kill a woman. He was sentenced to life, and a few weeks ago he died in prison. The case generated immense publicity because it seemed that a lot of people heard her scream and no one came to her rescue even after she was left bleeding to death. This case led to a debate over what are often called “Good Samaritan” laws. Some of these are less obligations to go to help as much as protections for those who do. Good Samaritan laws are often confused with “Duty to Help” laws, that most civil systems avoid, requiring citizens to go to the aid of others who are in danger or being attacked. There was a similar furor in China where in 2011 a young child Wang Yue was run over in the street and many people just walked by and did nothing. China now has a “Good Samaritan” law.

The issue is not as straightforward as it might appear. There have been cases both in the USA and China where people going to help someone have been sued either for interference or inappropriate medical responses. In 1964 New York, if people did not want to get involved it was possibly because the chances were high, in those crime ridden days, that a responder would himself be attacked. The issue is still debated. The “Seinfeld” TV series ended with a case of the actors being thrown into jail because when the New Yorkers were visiting Massachusetts (that had such a law) they were caught observing and photographing a carjacking without going to help. A recent episode of “Girls” also referred to the Kitty Genovese case.

The issue of such laws polarizes around two positions. Is it a criminal issue or a moral one? Is the duty to defend or to rescue? Should those who do not go to help be prosecuted or just condemned morally? Some countries like Germany and Finland make it a criminal offense.

Israel has a law requiring citizens to go the help of another. Its legal system is a compound of Ottoman law and British law, and they do not require going to someone’s aid. But the third element, Jewish law, most certainly does. The Torah explicitly says, and we read it last week in Leviticus 19, “Do not stand by (while) the blood of your neighbor (is being spilt).” For us it is a moral, religious obligation to protect someone under threat of danger. Not only, but Jewish Law as reflected in the Shulchan Aruch insists that one should even be prepared to risk danger to do so. There is a counter-principle that says you should NOT intentionally sacrifice your own life for someone else’s—but where the chance is unlikely, you should risk it.

I am immensely proud of my Jewish heritage. In the current mood of anti-Semitism in the Western World (whose religious and cultural underpinnings are still ignored), I want to explain why I am so offended by the original Good Samaritan story. Not, I hasten to add, that I have anything against Samaritans. Quite the contrary, I admire the strictness and perseverance that has enabled them to survive for nearly as long as we have even if their numbers are dwindling even faster than ours. There has always been a strange relationship between us.

Our version of their origin, is told in the Bible (2 Kings 17). (They have their own, of course, which claims an earlier pedigree.) In 722 BCE the Assyrians conquered Israel, the territory of the ten Northern Israelite tribes and scattered them around its empire (roughly Syria and Kurdistan). Their policy was to remove the population of defeated states and replace them with others transferred from defeated nations elsewhere. Those they imported into Samaria came to be known as Samaritans. Most people in those days believed their gods were local. In order to avoid plagues and other disasters, they asked the Assyrian king to teach them how to worship the gods of their new home. He in turn sent instructions to Judea to go and instruct them. That was how the Samaritans came to adopt the Bible.

In 592 and 586 BCE the Babylonians, who had conquered the Assyrians, destroyed the southern kingdom of Judea. They exiled the aristocrats and skilled artisans to Babylon, where the Jewish community eventually reestablished itself. Babylon was conquered by the Persian King Cyrus, who allowed a group of Jews to return to Judea to resettle and rebuild the Temple. When they got there, the Samaritans did their best to undermine and thwart them, claiming that they were now the legitimate indigenous population. (Sound familiar?) With the help of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Judeans succeeded, and thereafter the Samaritans lost their supremacy.

As they strictly obeyed biblical law, some rabbis regarded the Samaritans as full Jews. But they refused to accept rabbinic Judaism. They claimed it was an inauthentic post-Babylonian invention. Their version of the Torah is remarkably, though not entirely, similar to ours, but written in an earlier script than the one we have today, which was indeed adopted in Babylon.

The New Testament is a document predicated on the assumption that Judaism was hijacked by rabbis who betrayed its biblical mission. The New Testament was God’s New Deal with Christianity. As a result, several of its authors go out of their way to cast Jews or Pharisees or rabbis in a negative light in order to reinforce their claim that Christianity is the new covenant. The story in Luke of the Good Samaritan tells of a poor man left by robbers by the wayside. Ignored by passing Jews, he is helped by a good Samaritan. Of course it is pure polemic.

Christianity often used Jewish ideas but put them in the mouths of Christian spokesmen, naturally. So did Islam. After all, we were around for quite a while beforehand and were the fertile inspiration on which they sprouted. Earlier rabbis, like Hillel, expressed almost identical ideas to many of those to be found much later in Christianity. So you will often hear it said that, “Love your Neighbor as Yourself,” is to be found in the New Testament rather than the Torah.

When I was in a Church of England school in my childhood for a short while, I would often be told that I had do “the Christian thing”. In other words, do the “right thing”. As if being Jewish meant that I could not. This was the tone of life in Christian Europe in my youth. To be described as a Jew implied that you were a Judas who betrayed Jesus. Many of my generation and earlier were attacked and beaten simply for being Jewish and the murderers of God! In Catholic Italy “Porco Giudah” (you Jewish Pig) was a common insult. To “Jew” someone was to cheat them.

Now you might say I overreact and that things are indeed much better today, particularly in Catholic circles. But the whiff remains. Incidentally, that is why I suspect many Muslims are equally hypersensitive today. It is so easy to forget the significance and the polemic of language.

I understand, to the masses you can make your point better with a story, a parable. The Good Samaritan sounds better than a simple command. Laws are boring. But it is time, in this era of hypersensitivity and safe places, to retain the moral principle enunciated in Leviticus and pass by the implied slur of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament (unless you believe that Jews do not deserve safe spaces).

I hope that in future generations people will instead talk about the story of the Good Jew who gave so much to support dying industries, impoverished communities, charitable foundations, and projects that bring different people together in love and cooperation. Some hope!