Orthodoxy and Ancient Prejudice
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Orthodoxy and Ancient Prejudice
I traveled to America for my silver wedding anniversary. My previous visit to the USA ended in 1983 and was equally successful. I make no apologies for being unadvisedly pro-American, pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist. Still, I was scared that this time, once I reached the customs hall at Dulles International Airport “they” would not allow me in. Since 9/11 it is not easy getting into the USA for a holiday – I have heard far too many anecdotes of traumatic experiences from innocent people! My knowledge of customs officials are that they tend to be humorless, capricious and apparently, randomly hostile towards foreign visitors.
I suspect that Islamic terrorists intent on committing carnage are more likely to appear mild mannered, fawning; in-fact intolerably kiss-ass in order to pass through the customs checks. There has to be a better way!
But this is not why I am writing today. I confirmed my flight just prior to flying out during Passover and so I ordered kosher meals. In mid-flight the flight attendant asked me if I wanted to open my meal myself or was it OK for them to open it for me? So the first thing I must do is to put the question into historical context.
Excepting for a major hiccup during the second century BCE when the Maccabees forcibly converted a large number of people, the Jewish people have been very conflicted about conversion since biblical times, often warning against it. One major universal aspect of Judaism posits that following the Noahide commandments are sufficient for non-Jews to have an equal place in the afterlife with Jews. (The Noahide laws prohibit murder, theft, adultery, incest and the eating of live flesh and require communities to establish a legal system and courts of law). At the time of Christ, Judaism was a radical, revolutionary faith – which stood many Jews in opposition to the Roman Empire. At least in principle, Judaism freed the slaves and gave a measure of dignity to all human beings and that could never be accepted or comfortably tolerated, at the very least, for economic reasons, by either Greeks or Romans. Judaism gifted the Western World universal education almost 3,000 years before any other nation embraced it, the Decalogue, and a Sabbath day that was universally applicable.
Judea was geographically, strategically important to Rome and intermittently restive. By displaying an alternative to the Roman economic model it potentially compromised Roman control over its colonial empire. Eventually Rome responded with a bloodbath that to paraphrase the 2009 film, Avatar, would sear a memory into the Jewish psyche that would scar the Jews for millennia.
The early Christians were Jews but their leaders soon realized that if they were to become something bigger they would need to discard their toxic Jewish heritage. The Romans feared revolution and they feared dissent. The apostles distanced themselves and their followers from the narrative of Jewish revolt in order to establish their new faith and in doing so they planted the seeds of persecution that have plagued Christian-Jewish interfaith relations ever since.
When Jews were threatened with annihilation they responded by not simply discouraging proselytizing but more pro-actively, they periodically banned it. Justinian Christianity increased the restrictions on Jewish civil rights and centuries later with the foundation of Islam the practice of belittling that which was different and creating a separation between the holiness of the believer and the unclean nature of the non-believer was taken to the logically next and final step. The Koran provides a guide for persecuting and killing any doubters including Muslim ones. By declaring Islam to be the perfection of human faith it closes the door on criticism or improvement and it supersedes everything that came before it.
Today there are many people including the President of the United States of America excusing the inhumanity and ethnic cleansing practiced by Muslim fundamentalists throughout the Near-East. President Obama has said that Christians “did it first” (with the Crusades). What bothers me most about this is that it is a childish argument, philosophically and temperamentally immature. And it has no basis in ethics or fact. For the most powerful man in the world to be saying this is beyond logical comprehension.
We live in the 21st Century, not the 7th and not the 10th. In order to possess any relevance, every case is unique.
The brutal killers of the so-called Islamic State would like to harmonize the modern world with 7th Century Islam, so they crucify children to create fear and demonstrate their superior purpose. The Crusades started out as a desire to restore Christian access to the holy places around Jerusalem something that current Palestinian and anti-Semitic followers of the Arab cause would cynically deny to Jews!
By the 17th Century of the Common Era, Jews had been a persecuted people for so long that few of us alive today can appreciate the despair and sporadic dread they must have lived with. Out of all that squalor Baruch de Spinoza appeared on the scene; the man many people regard as the patriarch of the Enlightenment. In the Western World the intellectual darkness was starting to abate. In that 18th Century intellectual soup Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn argued for a rational intellectual landscape that afforded the individual freedom, equality and tolerance. The Haskalah, the 18th Century Jewish Enlightenment was also experiencing its birth pangs.
The Hasidim had a different approach. They did not preach the final coming of the messiah as millenarian cults did nor did they ascribe holiness to charismatic charlatans and theocratic psychopaths. Instead, out of the abyss of gloom and despair they called out to the heavens, they screamed out to God in Heaven for deliverance from their earthly suffering. They did so by encouraging the faithful to pray even harder, but with a twist. Their prayers would be filled with energy and joyful supplication to the almighty. They claimed that if, through their song, they could burst open the gates of heaven then God would hear their cries for help. And they claimed that a holy leader could intercede with God on behalf of the community. This adoption of charismatic leadership was a radical step away from the scholarly approach to prayer and community as practiced by previous generations.
The Hasidim rejected the legalistic, dry Yeshiva approach of mainstream Western Orthodoxy. We could claim they were the original happy-clappie gospel singers; eighteenth century evangelicals whose promotion of spiritualism sought to normalize mysticism as intrinsic to Jewish faith. In this way perhaps they thought that the misery of their lives could be set aside? They raised the hopes of the oppressed, perhaps they were delusional, but fear had taxed their spirits for so long that surely any way must have been better than the present. Fear led them to view prayer as their only salvation. Until that is, the new faith of Secularism began to supersede the old religious faith in the late 19th Century.
And this is where I reconnect with my contemporary story. How does this all relate to that flight attendants question? Ideas around ritual purity can be spiritually uplifting. However, the idea that the touch of a non-Jew might pollute the physical nutrients that sustain our bodies is an ancient fear and it is time to set it aside.
We do have legitimate terrors. We need to focus our fears in the direction of truly deadly contemporary existential enemies whether they are old-new anti-Jewish boycotters, antisemitic regimes posing as carriers of anti-Zionist radical chic or the deniers who are attempting to rewrite our history in universities and journals across the globe.
When I was questioned by the Virgin Atlantic flight attendant I was flustered by the question, and then the rage I felt I could never direct at an airline that was only respecting the archaic practices of a far too long and dark an age in our history. Some of those orthodox traditions remain as fears, to which too many of us blindly cling. Those fears preclude taking the first steps towards religious healing.
I understand that intimidation and the reluctance to move on are fears’ unholy descendants. I understand that a return to a Judaic theology based on moderation and reasonable doubt is not in the interests of current ultra-orthodox communities. Compromise might actually dissolve some of the barriers that exist between many of the sects and sub-sects of Hasidism.
But no one should have to ask me whether I am offended by the touch of another human being – no one should have to offer me the choice of opening up my own food parcel.
It is a question that debases and degrades both of us.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Madeleine Albright was the first woman to become the United States Secretary of State when she was sworn in on January 23, 1997.
According to Wikipedia “Albright was raised Catholic, but converted to Episcopalianism at the time of her marriage in 1959. She did not learn until adulthood that her parents were originally Jewish and that many of her Jewish relatives in Czechoslovakia had perished in the Holocaust, including three of her grandparents.” It was during her tenure as Secretary of State that she learned of her Jewish religious background (or so she claimed at the time).
It was when her family history was mischievously ‘revealed’ by Britain’s Guardian Newspaper that I became forever alienated from that racist publication. They editorialized that the knowledge of her antecedents made for an unbridgeable conflict of interest between her Jewish ‘past’ and her senior American administration position as Secretary of State and therefore she had no choice but to resign from that position. It was a moment of shocking clarity for me, my Damascene conversion.
Not everyone is obsessed by their family past. It is highly likely that Madeleine Albright was telling the truth when she disavowed any knowledge of her antecedents, likely but irrelevant.
We do not ever repudiate a persons’ right to express themselves because of their race, their religion, their color, their ethnicity, their sex or their sexuality. That is one of the fundamental rights that inhere in a democratic system. To state that a politician should not have an opinion is absurdly illogical. In fact, I cannot stress enough how infantile the Guardian editorial was. If we assume the sanity of the Guardian Newspapers’ editorial staff then the only possible explanations for making such a statement was either temporary insanity or a concealed agenda.
British society is divided between people whose humility obviates a reasoned understanding of every situation before judging others and those people who in their egotistical arrogance are offended when we do not immediately bow before their superior knowledge and understanding of everything. This ‘protean fascism’ is an intrinsic element of a society separated by Class; while superficially divided between Left and Right this attitude is, in reality, educationally if not psychologically inbred. It helps to explain the antisemitism that is rarely if ever absent from British society; whose flow is constant, just beneath the surface of British society. Its adoption by the Left and their Liberal allies is unsurprising in a country where successfully adapting to change has kept the ruling oligarchy whether aristocratic or upper class, firmly in control throughout history (excepting for a minor hiccough when the monarchy was deposed between 1649 and 1660).
This ‘protean fascism’ has no natural political home but in the United Kingdom it is now a disease of the Left more than the Right. Perhaps this is because conservatives have had to learn from history about the limitations of human insight while the Left (and that includes far too many people who mislabel themselves as liberals) have not.
In any case, as long as Jews turned the other cheek, the Guardian reader (and this also applies to the BBC and the New York Times) could tolerate us and our presence in society. Israel’s defeat of its existential Arab enemy in the Six Day War of 1967 ended that post Shoah honeymoon period between abuser and victim.
I understand why the Guardian staked out its position of prejudice against the “psychically tainted” Madeleine Albright. Nuance is lost on the fascist. The reasoning would have been that only someone who was “detached” from a conflict could bring an unbiased approach to solving that conflict. In a fascist environment detachment is determined by self-appointed power brokers, in this case, Britain’s Guardian Newspaper. But the premise is logically unsupportable in any but a politically racist context.
Enemies fail to relate to each as being equal in humanity because they are unable or unwilling to recognize their mutual antipathy and with no clear understanding of their reciprocal fears.
The Guardian position was dissimulation at its most racist. No Guardian editor would have argued for the exclusion of a Protestant from negotiating the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement, or, that the pivotal role played by George J Mitchell in formulating that agreement was unacceptable because of his ethnic (Irish Catholic) descent. During WW2 the Nazis questioned the role of a president with a German sounding name (Roosevelt) in waging a war against them. They said that if he opposed Nazism then he must be Jewish!
Nations have a vested interest in resolving conflict. The Guardian implication that a person whose entire life had been lived as a practicing Christian was somehow corrupted by Jewish ‘feelings’ was the kind of thinking publicly expressed during the Second World War in Germany.
It really is that simple.
I have never read a disavowal of that Guardian ‘principle’ nor are any of us likely to do so because the Guardian Newspaper romanticizes only dead Jews and its house Jews (the pejorative term “useful Jews” carries less of a contemporary appreciation of the concept); its European post-Nation State political theology associates all Jews with a European identity which therefore negates any Jewish self-determination as archaic and therefore, worthy only of disdain.
On the day that up to three million people came together throughout France to protest the murder of 17 human beings by followers of a “strictly literalist and uncompromising version of Islam applied with aggressive intolerance” (Charles Allen) a BBC journalist (Tom Willcox) interrogated the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, urging her to see a connection between two warring nations and Muslims driven by hatred of almost everything the West stands for. Hillary Clinton, who hopes to be the next President of the United States of America called for us to empathize with cold blooded killers who rejoice in the act of slaughtering their victims and who, would have happily murdered hundreds of children if given the opportunity. (Because of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, three Jewish schools in the near vicinity of the store that was subsequently targeted were closed).
The contagion that is Britain’s Guardian Newspaper has spread far and wide.
Not all narratives are equal. Encouraging a series of fallacious narratives in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for a targeted group is fascism. Selectively censoring our rights because we are Zionists or Israeli is Fascism. The Guardian has provided a safe-haven for the spread of fascism. Fascism is a step on the way to something far worse, a fascist ideology that specifically targets Jews. Neither Left wing fascism nor right wing fascism, in the end, makes any difference to “my kind” or those people that support me because the end solution is inevitably the final solution.