Sunday, February 12, 2012

Racism - not the real issue? A paranoid delusion, or something to be scared about?

I wrote this a few weeks ago, and chose not to post it, because if anyone does ever read this blog, I was scared that they would think I had completely lost it, but that isn't a good enough reason, so here is a little piece of class consciousness writing from a non-reconstructed commie....

WARNING! I may have ingested some paranoia juice before writing this. Feel free to ignore, and don't think any worse of me for it. (Please).

Seriously - I don't believe what I am about to write is true, but a little part of my brain thinks it might be, and that scares me. Even if this particular issue is my own fantasy, I worry that the wider message is true...

The recent racism storm that seems to have blown through English football has taken many by surprise. It shouldn't have. Those of us who have an interest in the Barclays premier league would like to think that this barbaric and ignorant prejudice was a thing of the past. That only stupid ignoramuses still took part in racist behaviour and that surely we had done enough to "clean" the game of this sort of thing.

We were the stupid ones.

Anti-Racism is a wonderful cause, but unfortunately, many of us who espouse it, are ignorant of the other prejudices which can creep into our thinking. When we say that racism is a thing of the past, we pretend that racism is about insults on a playing field. Racism is about a lot more than that. It is about who has power and who doesn't and what they do to keep those without power in a position of submission. Racism cannot be torn apart from the class conflict which has been the primary source of injustice in the UK since the feudal system was first brought into question. Racism is a tool of the ruling elite. Those who are currently rich and powerful would like all the poor of the country to fight as much as possible between themselves, so that they will not be able to unify against the ruling elites who would desire to entrench power in their hands.

Don't worry I do realise this is beginning to sound like one of the more paranoid parts of a communist manifesto, but bear with me...

It's not very pc to mention it, but racism tends to be a curse of the working class (and the highest reaches of the aristocracy). This has a number of reasons - one, is that racism can be cured through education, so the more a person has been deprived of an education, the more they are likely to fall under the spell of this disease of ignorance. But the more powerful reason that racism is part of the fabric of the British working class is because the ruling aristocracy desires it to be so. The more the "chavs" (white working class) and the "coloureds" (non-white, mostly working class) are at each other's throats, the less time they may have to realise that most of the issues that they feel aggrieved about actually have nothing to do with each other, but with the economic situation. Why do I mention this - because obviously the vast majority of footballers are working class. The offer of riches is the carrot used to help them make huge amounts of money for the ruling elite. Is it conceivable that all these working class heroes are also AntiRacism warriors? Not sure.

And here comes the dark truth that everyone is beginning to be aware of. Poverty in the UK is a decision of the government. If they wanted a more equitable system, it could be delivered. The government has the power to take from the rich what they have plundered and give it back to the poor. They choose not to. If anyone is wondering where did this storm of racism come from, then look no further than Wall St/the city of London. It is any coincidence that these incidents have been brought to public attention when the people have started to wake up to the fact that 99% of the country is being ripped off by 1%. When that 99% look like they are on the verge of unifying, the 1% got scared. It is unthinkable that these two incidents suddenly happened, when similar incidents have not been happening before. I assume they have been happening in the past. But the media has never been asked to make an issue of them as they were in this case. Usually, it would the opposite of corporate interest to highlight racism in football - doesn't look good for Sky trying to sell their product to the prawn sandwich brigade. But in this case the special interests in the media were bought out - asked to highlight the problem instead of brush it under the carpet - assured that they will be able to make enough short term gain off the issue, and that it would not harm the long term cash-cow too much.

So yeah - all this may be super-paranoia, but...

Isn't it too co-incidental that racism invades the country's richest sport just when class consciousness has raised its head for the first time since Tony Blair killed Labour back in the early nineties?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

כאיש אחד בלב אחד - As one people with one heart....

So every now and again, I get asked to write a drasha for someone. Here is one I did for the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), that can be seen on there site here:

“As one person with one heart” on Parashat Yitro

Parashat Yitro contains one of the most dramatic scenes of the entire Torah, and possibly the pivotal moment of all of Jewish History – it is the Torah portion which relates our primary encounter with the divine. The paradigmatic moment of revelation retold in this parasha serves as the classic example of what it means to have God’s will revealed to us on the collective level. Whatever Reform theology or modern scholarship might tell us about the authorship of the Torah, the tradition views the gathering at Sinai as the defining moment of Divine Revelation. This is it! This is the moment that we become God’s chosen (for those who still believe in that)! This is the moment that Moses stands face to face with the Eternal, and we in turn share in that heavenly intimacy. This is THE moment of truth. This is the moment when the Jewish people are brought together – our national character is defined through this gathering – this meeting with each other and the divine. This is the beginning of our covenant. Our covenant with the divine and with each other. Or is it?

A minute detail of questionable Hebrew grammar may point to a different rendering of this dramatic moment.

At the beginning of Chapter 19 in the book of Exodus, before the children of Israel arrive at Mt Sinai – before this miraculous gathering – we read:

א בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְצֵאת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי. ב וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר.

In the third month, after the children of Israel had left Egypt, on that day they came to the Desert of Sinai. And they travelled from Refidim, and they came to the Desert of Sinai and they encamped in the desert; and Israel encamped opposite the mountain.”

If one was reading the English, or did not understand the Hebrew, the significance of this line would be entirely lost. It would seem a list of geographic details - part of an endless litany of the journeying of the children of Israel with which the Torah is littered. But in the original Hebrew, a deviation is obvious in the subject of the verbs used throughout these two verses. In the first verse, the subject is “the children of Israel.” In the second verse, it seems the verbs that describe the action – “they travelled”, “they came”, “they encamped” – are all in the third person plural, and then at the end of the verse, the subject changes from being “the children of Israel” to “Israel”, and the verb changes from plural to singular.

Now, I cannot pretend to be an ancient grammarian or understand the significance of each minor detail of the Torah’s use of language. But luckily I do not have to – for that, we have Rabbi Shimon Itzhaki, better known as Rashi (France, late 11th century) – the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah. Drawing on ancient midrashim, Rashi attempts to answer all the questions and queries that are brought up by the text of the torah. And what does Rashi have to say about this verse?

Commenting on the change to the singular, “ויחן שם ישראל”, Rashi says:
“כאיש אחד בלב אחד, As one person with one heart.”
He goes on to point out that the previous journeys and encampments of Israel (referred to in the plural) had not been “as one person with one heart” but with murmurings and disagreements.

What does Rashi mean by this expression, “as one person with one heart”? The term has come to be used in modern day Israel as a slogan of national unity. What it expresses in its most simply understood form, is that the people were united when they encamped opposite Mt Sinai – they were already “as one person with one heart” BEFORE they received Torah. When we understand the significance of this, it becomes clear that the giving of Torah did not unite us – we were already united. Something about our shared journey – our shared experience of the ordeal of journeying, the shared fears and hopes of leaving Egypt – had brought us together. If the giving of the Torah is symbolic of our shared belief, while the exodus from Egypt is symbolic of our shared experience, this simple midrash brought by Rashi shows us that it is our shared experience – our history together as a community that unites us, before we come to have a shared view of the world. In fact, even without any basis for shared belief, we have the ability to stand together as one. This unity, which is not reliant on the shared belief brought about by the giving of Torah is called in our tradition, “Brit Goral” – the covenant of fate. While the covenant we enter into at Sinai, that of shared belief, is called “Brit Yiud” – the covenant of faith. These are not reliant on each other. We shared Brit Goral before we joined in Brit Yiud. Yiud literally means “objective” – something to strive for. And indeed we may strive to find common belief. But as members of the people of Israel, we need not strive to find common experience – that is part of who we are.

This basic truth – of our shared experience – of our common past – of our unity of fraternity, if not of purpose, has been forgotten within Israeli society and the Jewish world today. We do not stand “as one person, with one heart”. We stand divided. History has taught us the danger of such a stance. As we approach Parashat Yitro, we are called to remember the possibility of unity despite our murmurings and disagreements – despite the fact we may not share belief, we are called to remember our shared heritage. May we realise the potential of this unity before we fall divided.