Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Storm in a Turkish Coffee cup? The Returning Israelis video advert controversy.

So, it seems a lot of people have been offended by an offensive set of adverts - no news there, I guess. Except people seem to be getting offended for all the wrong reasons. A lot of my friends on facebook have been posting this article from the Atlantic:

Which was actually originally report on "The Jewish Channel":

The videos themselves can be viewed in their original context at the Israeli Absorption ministry's website:

If one goes straight to the ads, without the misleading commentary of the Atlantic article, one will see a set of clumsy (in idea terms, but visually polished) adverts which are blunt, crass, uncouth, and border on racist. The ads suggest that Israelis should encourage their children who have emigrated to return to Israel. What is offensive about these adverts? That the Israeli government would believe we, Israeli citizens, would share their narrow-minded view of identity politics and believe that "preserving Israeli identity" is worth more than doing whatever is best for our children's health and happiness. That is offensive. The idea that Israeliness is something to be defended, that Americanness is such a bad thing - that we would not want our kids growing up as Americans instead of Israelis - that is offensive.

What's not offensive about these ads? Any suggestion that they may say anything about American Jews - because actually they don't say anything at all about American Jews. This campaign is not talking about the difference between Israelis and American Jews - it's talking about the difference between being Israeli and not being Israeli. Or rather being an Israeli living in Israel and one living abroad.

Are the adverts wrong? Obviously it depends what you mean by wrong - if you are talking morally wrong - well yes - as I mentioned before, I think they play on an essentially racist understanding of identity politics which is harmful to the fabric of society and for international peace and wellbeing between people of different cultures. Are they factually wrong? Well no - of course not. It is simple fact that someone who grows up in a country other than their parents' country of birth will feel less attached to that country's culture. And that is all these adverts are saying. Christmas is a national holiday in the USA - so yes - an American kid will understand that is the winter holiday that people celebrate. An American kid will call their dad, Daddy. And a non-Israeli partner won't feel the same about Yom Hazikaron as an Israeli. My son has British citzenship - but, if he continues to be raised in Israel, he will not be as British, in identity terms, as I am. He will not understand Shakespeare in the same way, he will not appreciate a sunny day in May in the same way, he will genuinely truly bless the rain, he won't know that you put milk in tea, he won't know that Turkey leftovers are the traditional food for the weeks following the 25th of December. He may even think (heaven forfend) that the Israeli Premier league represents top class football. He will not be very British. I am fine with that. If the British government wanted to lure me back to Britain and they chose to tell my parents that Aviv (my son) won't be able to quote Shakespeare, won't know what Christmas is, or will call me Abba - I'd be fine with that. I would not be offended in any way.

Any reading of an anti-Diasporic message in these ads is as much part of the neurotic paranoia of the American Jewish community as it is part of the Zionist message of the ads.

These ads are a cheap crude way of playing on all people's emotional desire to see themselves in their descendants. When I want to encourage my mum in her Hebrew homework, I tell her that she needs to do it so that she will be able to talk to her grandkids (of course they will speak English - they are the children of Brits, but will their kids?). But they are not making any attack on the Jews of the Diaspora.

In short - "Diaspora Jewry" - get over it. If you want to put your head in the sand and pretend you don't have an issue to deal with regarding assimilation - that's fine, but don't pretend that we are attacking you when we try and tell the truth to Israeli citizens living among you. And Israeli Government - once again, thanks for making me ashamed to be in any way related to your idiotic policies of stupidity, narrow-mindedness and suicidal short-sightedness - oh, and way to go pissing off "Diaspora Jewry" - we really need to alienate some of the few supporters we have left! You may just have encouraged me to leave!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My (not very) public apology to Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks

First off, let me be clear - I know that Rabbi Sacks does not need my apology. He doesn't know who I am. We have actually met (a few times), but he has met probably a million people. There is no reason for him to know who I am, and certainly none for him to care about what I think of him. My apology therefore is only half for him - it is more for me. It is a good exercise in humility to admit when one is wrong and to say sorry. This may not be the season, I might have missed Elul and the days of repentance - but you know what - Teshuva's a journey, one we are always on (ok, I am stopping with that Drasha now, I promise, I really have done it to death).

So yes - I want to apologise to Rabbi Dr Sacks. I just read a very little booklet he put out for Yom Kippur (Letters to the Next Generation 2). Not one of his epic tomes, no masterpiece of theology - a simple booklet, which you could probably polish off in your average Yom Kippur Mussaf service if you got bored and lost track of the service. I imagine that's the point. The beauty of this little book is that Sacks manages to avoid intra-Jewish politics, and is talking solely to a Jewish audience so isn't trying to suck up to any pc liberals. And yet in his own innately sensitive way, he is defending the Jewish tradition from the critiques of post-modernity, and he does it immensely well. He shows his true genius. He is in fact a great darshan, a skilled writer, a teacher, a rabbi. Chief among British rabbis, by this evidence. So I am sorry for the harsh criticism I have doled out your way in the past. I now realise that you really are a good yid. You are simply a lousy politician. And unfortunately for you - while you wanted to lead Jewishly as a politician, you have been forced to lead the Jews politically. One of the great einstein quotes flowing around the net recently is his classic, about everyone being a genius: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
So Rabbi Sacks - as a rabbi, it turns out you are a genius. And you deserve to be recognised as such, of course, if you keep trying to climb trees, you won't get enough air to your gills....
So, while I may still have no/little respect for the concept of a chief rabbinate, I would love to say thanks to the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for teaching me a valuable lesson.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A thought about Bereishit.

A little late admittedly, but I thought I would give a tiny word about Bereishit. Simply because for years I have been carrying around this little mini-drash and I have never written it down (though I have taught it constantly). I am certain that I am not the first to think of this, but I never heard it from anyone else - I just came up with it one day when arguing the merits of what I call positive agnosticism (that's for a different blog to explain what that is..). Anyway here it is.

בראשית ברא אלהים

As we all know - that is how parashat Bereishit and the whole of Torah begins. We all also know that it is traditionally read with two kamatzim under the word ברא - bara. But we all also know that the nikud of the masoretic text is a later addition - it is in itself a version of interpretation. There is another way of pointing the text - instead of with two kamatzim - bara - it could be pointed with a sheva and a kamatz - b'ra - the imperative form. As such the line would no longer read, "In the beginning God created", but rather, "In the beginning, create God". This reading makes much more sense. Even before Darwin, my guess is that most people did not believe the creation myth was intended as natural history - it is intended to teach us something, to impart values and help us shape an identity as moral beings. As such, it starts with a simple formula - create for yourself a deity - a sense of the divine - live as if there is an absolute right and wrong, a morality that you are bound to. This sense of the divine, this אלהים will help you understand the rest of the world as you perceive it and guide you towards being an upright human being.

That's my little drash for Bereishit.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why my fasting will include laying off the Guardian or Lies, Damn Lies and Guardian Reporting

Each year as we approach Rosh Hashannah, I make myself some Shana Tova resolutions. No doubt in years to come I will be using 10q for this, but for now, I tend to just write them down on a scrap of paper which floats around my office. I then attempt not to lose the piece of paper for as long as I can keep to the resolutions - I believe that one year, I even managed to have the scrap of paper by next Rosh Hashannah (which is definitely more than I can say for the resolutions).

This year one of my resolutions will be to refrain from using the Guardian website.

Why is this bizarre move part of my New Year's Resolutions, I hear you ask (who am I hearing - no-one knows this blog is here!)?

There are in fact two reasons - one - I simply spend too much time wasted on reading pointless articles on the net, when I should be going to bed early and having enough energy to devote to my gorgeous son and wife. But - two - and more importantly - the camel's back has broken.

Growing up in Manchester, home of the Guardian, and as the son of a Labour Lord Mayor, and the grandson of a Labour chairman of the Greater Manchester Council, the Guardian newspaper was the natural choice for our socialist (admittedly of the champagne variety) leaning household. It was the paper on the breakfast table as I grew up. Over the years, as the Labour Party went more extreme (mid-80s) and my parents went more moderate, somehow the Guardian was replaced by the Times, but I stayed true to the GroinYard, for both sentimental and ideological reasons. I pride myself on my (champagne) socialist views, my liberal outlook, my left-wing agenda. I am unashamedly a pinko-commie-Palestinian loving, wet as a fish, floppy as Hugh Grant's hair LEFTY. So obviously the Guardian had to be my natural ideological home.

Even when my Zionist leanings pushed me to make Aliyah - I kept faith with my old friend. I understood that the paper was broadly aligned against Israeli policy -but then again - so was I. I realised that the editorial policy was broad enough to include radical anti-Zionists and Palestinian, anti-Israeli, extremists, but they also had articles representing support for the original Zionist vision of a safe and secure homeland living in peace with its neighbours. So - I carried on reading avidly - mostly comment pieces on the Middle East and Israel, and football pieces on Manchester United.

But the paper is losing my support. It has gone too far. In recent months, the paper has ceased to function as a source of journalism and has become a form of propagandizing. Not only is the Guardian now a campaign outlet rather than a newspaper, but the campaign has taken worrying steps towards not only the championing of the Palestinian cause but the complete delegitimization of Israel. In an article urging the left to remain cautious of blurring anti-Israel sentiment with antiSemitism, one writer describes Israel's founding thus: "The actually existing Israel is founded upon displacement of another people .." One comment piece immediately after the recent UN stand-off between Abbas and Netanyahu was from a Palestinian academic who accused Abbas of selling out the people and urged all sensible people to continue the struggle for a one-state solution (i.e. the dissolution of Israel). But worst of all is the fact that the Comment is Free website (whose by-line is, “But facts are sacred”) is willing to sacrifice all pretence of being part of a news organisation when it presents its “background” to the statehood appeal with a completely one-sided, biased, demonization of Israel. I can deal with the attacks of campaigners invited onto the site to air their views, but this was something else – this was, in my eyes, the final betrayal – not of me, nor or the original idea of Zionism, but of the mission of the newspaper – of all newspaper – to present the complex reality of the world. Instead, a simplistic whitewash of Israeli-Palestinian history was painted, a purimshpiel mockery of a morality play, with all Israelis cast as blood-lustful settlers praying on innocent Palestinians. This was the final straw.

I am giving up the Guardian, not because I am an Israeli, and I recognise that the Guardian has become part of an organised effort to delegitimize the country I live in, not because I am a Jew, and I fear that the paper has crossed the line between anti-Zionism and antiSemitism, but because, as the paper’s website tells us, “Comment is Free”, but facts really are sacred. I believe that somewhere out there, there might be a truth – a real objective definable truth. While none of us can ever guarantee we have found it or a part of it, a newspaper is not at liberty to remove itself from the search for such a thing.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"History is written by the victors"

The tenth anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks has been causing many to look back over the last decade and in particular how the world has changed, how the world reacted to this great rupturing event - an event so dramatic it seemed to be placed in history as a fault line between millenia.

One article that I have read, and was particularly unimpressed with was from the Guardian:

While I actually agree with the main thrust of the article - that the future will more likely be influenced by the economic rise of China and India than the violent struggles between American Imperialism and Islamo-fascism, the headline strikes me as particularly inept. The Guardian sub-editor (for it is not the author who chooses the title) claims:

"The years since 9/11 already look like a detour, not the main road of history

What could this possibly mean? There is some main road of history which humankind walks down? Has the paper reverted back to a naive 19th century understanding of progress? One in which we march in a set direction? What other momentous events does the editor/author believe were mere "detours"? The rise of Nazism? The Holocaust? The second world war? What was the road and what was the detour?

History does not travel on roads - it always beats its own way through an unplotted course.

And most importantly - each of us holds a compass and has the right to choose our way. In the next decade, may we all know to follow paths of peace.

וכל נתיבותיה שלום

Monday, August 29, 2011

Do the people really demand Social Justice? My two cents worth on the Protest Movement.

(Author's note: I have been too scared to post this for quite a while now, because it seems I am so against the popular tide, but nevertheless...)

Israel is awash with protest fever. This summer has seen the usual political, diplomatic and military engagements which usually stifle any internal political debate about economic policy. We have terror attacks, rockets in the south, possible Palestinian independence and yet, through it all, a vibrant protest movement, united under the banner of "העם דורש צדק חברתי" - "The people demand social justice" has managed to capture the imagination and support of the nation. This is laudable. I lend my voice to the protests. They should be supported - they should get exactly what they are asking for from the government. So what is that exactly?

For me, if the protests were truly about Social Justice, they would be calling for economic relief for the poorest and most disenfranchised of Israeli society. Do I hear these calls? Do I see any Arab leaders talking about the ingrained prejudice of society that stops Israeli Arabs being able to earn a decent living in this country? No. What about Israel's other huge sector that represents a large section of the poorest echelons of society - the Haredim? Have we heard from them? No. In fact, the organisers of the protest make no attempt to disguise the fact that this is a middle class protest. The justice being asked for, is not one that would eliminate poverty or create equality - it is simply that people who work for a living want to be able to enjoy a better standard of living. It's all about relieving the heavy economic burden - and you know what - I 100% support this aim. I agree that the middle classes of Israel should be able to reach the end of the month without going into debt, but this brings me to my main problem with the protests - what would do this? What suggestions are being proposed?

Stopping investing money in the settlements from the national budget? Protest leaders haven't proposed that. Stopping supporting the Hareidi private education system which doesn't teach the national curriculum from the public budget? They haven't proposed that. Enforce army conscription for all, so that the people who do reserve duty can do it for less time, spend more time with their families, need less (very expensive) childcare and invest more in their careers? No - they haven't suggested that. What are they suggesting? Less VAT and more direct tax for the super wealthy. And they think that will make a huge difference????????

It is clear to see why the protesters have not yet laid out a clear plan for any actual change - doing so would endanger the huge broad coalition of students, civil servants, teachers, the lower middle class, the upper middle class, basically everyone outside of the uber-wealthy and the government who support the protests. But that's the point - when you don't really say anything, beyond a catchy slogan or two, everyone can agree with you. These protests are great for getting people on the street - but do they have any content?

For a long long time, one political party, Meretz, has consistently articulated a socio-economic agenda for this country that would actually achieve what the protesters want. They have become so irrelevant and obsolete that they will probably fall out of the Knesset at the next elections. Virtually none of the protesters or their leaders will vote for them. Most will vote for the same parties that have created the current financial situation. Why? Because the protests have not changed the political reality of Israel. People will still vote on the issue of peace and security - without stopping to think whether the issues might even be connected.

Israel is awash with protest fever - but do not be fooled. These protests will mean little until they really do start demanding social justice, and not just cheaper cottage cheese.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From Eicha to Ayeka: Why I chose not to fast this Tisha B’Av

I entered Tisha B’Av, perfectly prepared to observe my now usual custom of fasting from Sundown to Star-up. For the past decade, I have fasted on Tisha B’Av and for most of that time on the other minor fast days connected to the destruction of the Temple, and I have always had a good reason. This year, I discovered, in the middle of Tisha B’Av a good reason not to fast.

When I started fasting on Tisha B’Av I did not yet live in Israel, but I had become attached to my Jewish heritage and my fasting represented an expression of my desire to cast in my personal destiny with that of my people – to take responsibility for our collective fate – to be an active part of the nation’s life. Fasting as a Jew in Exile made perfect sense – I was literally mourning my exile – the historical circumstance that meant I as a Jew was not living in Judea.

On moving to Israel, fasting on Tisha B’Av became a little more complex, but nevertheless entirely reasonable to my own thinking. While I personally was no longer in exile (had I ever really been on a personal level?), now that I was back in the oh-so-imperfect third commonwealth of the state of Israel, I could see that there was so much still to mourn. As an Israeli, my mourning on Tisha B’Av was for our failure to learn the lessons of our exile. We may have succeeded to re-establish sovereignty in a political, physical sense, but we had not freed ourselves of the baseless hatred that led to the destruction of the second temple. We had not truly committed ourselves to building a society that could be an example to others. On becoming an Israeli, my fasting changed – I was no longer mourning for a mythical past – but rather for a very real present – I was mourning our inability to live up to our own promises to ourselves. Our inability to be our own redeemers.

So what changed this year?

As I was teaching a class that was meant to be about how we have failed to change our exilic thinking, and how exile forced us into being a more gendered hierarchical society, it hit me that mourning is a process one goes through, which is deliberately limited. You are meant to come out in a different place after it. It is meant to change you. Instituting the idea of fasting to represent our mourning for the temple (which we can then understand differently as our mourning for the incomplete job of rebuilding our society) is self-destructive, or at the least limits growth. We need to go past mourning. Only by actively stopping the slightly self-indulgent act of mourning can we stop viewing ourselves as victims of circumstance.

Here, I want to introduce another drash that I read in preparation for Shabbat Hazon this year. The term Eicha, which opens Megilat Eicha that we read on Tisha B’Av and also appears in the Haftarah for the Shabbat beforehand, and in parashat Devarim which is always read on Shabbat Hazon appears 18 times in Torah. One time, the same written word is actually read not as Eicha, but as Ayeka. The two words both seem to introduce questions, but they could not have more different meanings. Eicha, means “How?” – but when it is used, it is usually exclamatory rather than actually interrogatively understood – i.e. it’s not really a question. When we use Eicha, we are asking “How did this happen to me?” We are bemoaning our luck, our fate. We are self-empathising, or worse, asking for sympathy. When we hear Ayeka, once, in the story of Gan Eden, G-d is asking us where we are. Of course if we understand that G-d already knows where we are, we know that this question is not meant literally – where are you? But rather, where are you at? What have you become that you could sin so? Why are you trying to hide? What are you trying to hide? The Ayeka question turns the conversation from self-pity to self-analysis, from sympathy to introspection. It doesn’t belong in the process of mourning.

Tisha B’Av needs to stop being a day in which we mourn our national fate – for there is nothing to be mourned. We are a wealthy prosperous nation. We have had trouble in the past, we have got through it, we are well prepared for the future. But we haven’t learnt from our own mistakes. On this we should concentrate on Tisha B’Av: our physical exile has ended, how do we bring an end to our spiritual exile. If next year, I feel fasting will help me find an answer to that question, I will gladly go hungry.