Sunday 25 July 2010

Not Learning the Lessons of Tisha B'Av

Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av), which we marked last week, is one of only two full fast days in the Jewish calendar. The other is Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. This gives some indication of the level of importance attached to Tisha B'Av.

At the most simplistic level, the reason for fasting on each of the two days is very different. The fast on Yom Kippur is about atonement and seeking forgiveness. It is a day when Jews seek to atone for their sins of the past year committed against G-d and their fellow man, and undertake to be more holy in the year ahead. The act of fasting on this day is an attempt to separate oneself from the physical, material world and to draw closer to the spiritual world. In contrast, the fast on Tisha B'Av is about mourning a number of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people on this date over the ages. Most notable amongst the catastrophes attributed to this day, is the destruction of the first and second temples, both of which were destroyed on this unluckiest of dates 656 years apart. The day is dedicated to mourning these disasters and numerous others, and the fast is part of the mourning ritual.

The fast on Tisha B'Av, however, goes further than the simple act of mourning historical events. Significant introspection has taken place to try to understand why the temples were destroyed, and to understand the significance of why these events having taken place on the same date on the Hebrew calendar. It is commonly accepted that it is not pure coincidence that so many disasters share the same date. There is a widely-held view that the common date is a message, with a lesson that needs to be learned about human behaviour that was taking place at the time of each calamity.

The Talmud (a central text of Judaism in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history) cites the reasons attributed to the destruction of the temples. In the case of the first temple, it was because the three cardinal sins were rampant in society: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder. The Talmud tells us that the reason for the destruction of the second temple was sinat chinam - hatred without cause - which we are told was rampant in society in 70 C.E. when the temple was destroyed. Sinat chinam is characterised as the baseless hatred by one Jew towards his fellow man, and not simply hatred in general.

Two conclusions can be deduced from these Talmudic references. The first is that the three cardinal sins associated with the destruction of the first temple, are equal to the baseless hatred said to have caused the destruction of the second temple. Interestingly, sins towards G-d (idol worship) are placed on an equal footing with sins committed by man to his fellow man, including sinat chinam. The second conclusion is that the temple will not be rebuilt until our present-day society rids itself of these sins.

For believers in Jewish law and the Talmud, these conclusions are a clear indication that there is still work to be done in our society to bring about the reconstruction of the temple. Although there is also the belief that the coming of the messiah is a pre-requisite for the reconstruction of the temple, it is understood that this will not happen until the evils in our society, that were the cause of the destruction of the previous two temples, are eradicated to create conditions that are conducive to the reconstruction of the temple. Mainstream Judaism includes many calls in its daily prayers for the temple to be rebuilt "speedily in our days".

Given the strong desire for the temple to be rebuilt, and the understanding that baseless hatred could prevent this from taking place, it is surprising that this evil is so strongly perpetuated in our present-day society. It is even more surprising how much this behaviour is evident in the religious community. While they fast, beat their chests and prostrate themselves on Tisha B'Av, they seem to have no qualms about driving wedges in our society caused by baseless hatred. This is evident not only at the level of the individual, but is also obvious at a group and national level. Examples of this from the past few weeks alone can be seen with story of the Immanuel school, the arrest of a woman trying to read from the holy Torah at the Western Wall and the introduction of the conversion bill into the Knesset just to name a few. These are all instances of attempts to create religious tension where alternative solutions may have been sought.

The religious community responsible for initiating these antagonistic actions have defended their behaviour as being hatred with reason rather than sinat chinam, unjustified hatred. It is their contention that this is a fight to protect the strict application of Jewish law and practice in an environment where there is an attempt to dilute this. The battle over the school in Immanuel was billed as being the fight for G-d's law against the law laid down by the High Court of Justice. When presented in these emotive terms, it is obvious that a showdown is inevitable. This was the case when hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem to defend the Immanuel parents who took on a hero status for their stand, and acts in insulting other law-abiding Jews. Following all the brinkmanship, it seems as if the Immanuel parents have finally found a working solution to their problem which will satisfy all parties, and show a little respect to those who hold a slightly different view or practice than their own.

It is not the fact that they are prepared to fight for their beliefs that I find so objectionable. I cannot accept that it is necessary to conduct the battle with such disdain for others who do not agree, or with such a confrontational approach that seems designed to create conflict. Although our ultra-Orthodox brethren are supposedly not exposed to the modern world of television, internet and other media, they sure do understand the value of creating news headlines in the interests of getting their own way. If baseless hatred is required to attract the attention, they seem not to hesitate to pursue this without even giving a second thought to the negative impact that this may have on our society.

Perhaps, our society has not yet understood that the opposite of sinat chinam is not simply to avoid baseless hatred. It is ahavat chinam, the act of loving without a cause. We very seldom see people finding reasons and ways to love and respect people, rather than finding reasons to hate them. This would be the true manifestation of avoiding baseless hatred. If we need to find a solution to the conversion bill or to the school in Immanuel, ahavat chinam calls for us to sit down and discuss possible alternatives showing some respect for other people's positions, instead of demanding that there is only one solution to every problem. It would be wonderful to see more of this inclusive approach, particularly from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Unfortunately, it seems that we are destined to mourn the destruction of the temples for the foreseeable future, rather than rejoice in its reconstruction. While it may be possible to argue either way about the fact that poor behaviour patterns caused the destruction of the first two temples, there is no doubt in my mind that a third temple can never be built in a society which creates such conflicts amongst itself. If we cannot even manage to find a suitable compromise about the schools that our children attend, how can we hope to come to a consensus about the reconstruction of the temple?

Sunday 18 July 2010

Obama's Take Two - Again

US President Barack Obama recently found it necessary to issue a special invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for him to return to the White House for a" charm offensive". This was required due to the persistent negative press about Obama's treatment of Netanyahu during his previous visit to Washington. This epitomises the treatment that Obama has dished out to Israel since becoming president nearly 18 months ago. His first attempts have been derogatory to say the least. He was then forced to make a second attempt to fix the damage done. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the Israeli public who interpret his first action as the one which comes most naturally. Somehow, the attempts to fix the problem feel more contrived and less heart-felt when they eventually come.

During his presidency to date, Obama has visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the Middle East. He made sure that his "keynote address" on Middle East policy was delivered in Cairo. Despite the fact that Israel remains the USA's most important ally in the Middle East, and the only democracy in the region, Obama has made an obvious point of not visiting Israel. What can be deduced from this behaviour? Even though he has spent some considerable time in dealing with Middle East issues, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in particular, it sends a clear message to Israel when the US president does not find the time to pay Israel a personal visit. His predecessors made it their business to publicly be seen visiting Israel, so why is Obama so eager to avoid such a public display?

The truth is that the necessity to revisit his relationship with Netanyahu is only one example of Obama having to admit having done the wrong thing in relation to Israel at the first attempt. It was only a few months ago that Obama was forced to admit that his approach in dealing with the Middle East was mistaken, and that his administration was forced to change the way in which this was being handled. He admitted that he could not impose a settlement on Israel, that Israel is a sovereign nation and the notion that he could impose a settlement was simply wrong. What was he thinking when he considered the possibility of imposing a settlement on Israel? And why did he think that admitting such a ridiculous thought would be ok? The insult that he dished out to Israel in the process was only slighlty less than the damage done to his own standing by admitting that he had held this view. We have only seen the tip of the damage done, both to his Middle East policy and to his personal standing.

I cannot help but feel that this is not a series of innocent mistakes. It seems more like a natural instinct that he is finding hard to suppress when dealing with Israel. Having allowed his first reaction to come to the fore, he is forced to eat humble pie by admitting to his mistake, and trying to make good the damage caused. Unfortunately, his mistakes are too frequent and too consistent. When he should be affording Israel some respect, he is found to be critical and derogatory towards her. When he should be holding the feet of Israel's Arab enemies to the fire, he is found to be too cosy with them, and too accommodating of their behaviour.

The Israeli public seems to have been quick to pick up on this fact. In a poll published in the "Jerusalem Post" on Friday, it became all too apparent how optimistic Israelis were when he was first elected, and how this optimism has completed disappeared. At first, Israelis were caught up with the positive euphoria that swept the USA after the election of the first African American president. In a poll in May 2009, no fewer than 31% of Israelis felt that Obama was pro-Israel while 14% felt he was pro-Palestinian. By June 2009, the views of Israelis had changed dramatically to reflect only 6% believing that he was pro-Israel and 50% viewing him as pro-Palestinian. Now, after his charm offensive with Netanyahu and his first interview with an Israeli TV station since his arrival at the White House, the same poll shows 10% of Israelis seeing him as pr0-Israel and 46% as pro-Palestinian. This may "only" be a public opinion poll with no real effect on the political landscape, but these are the same people who will be voting in the next Israeli general election. A candidate who is seen to be too close with a US president viewed as anti-Israel is likely to suffer at the polls.

At best, Obama's mixed messages and amateurish behaviour with respect to the Middle East can be viewed as naive and poorly considered. For somebody, however, who is such an expert at ensuring that his messages have the correct spin for public consumption, his actions seem to be more than unintentional errors. While I have no evidence to support some of the conspiracy theories that circulate about Obama's Muslim ancestry and a hidden agenda on the part of the US president to promote Muslim interests in the Middle East (at the expense of the Jews), it is difficult to understand what Obama is trying to achieve in the region. I was recently reminded that Islam is handed down through the paternal line, and that Obama's father was a Muslim. Obama has, of course, made a point of reinforcing his Christian faith at every possible photo opportunity. From a Muslim perspective, however, this does not deny that he is a Muslim - it simply makes him a bad Muslim.

It is clear that Obama had a huge job on his hands to convert the euphoria and enormous hope that rested on his shoulders at the time of his election into actions that would satisfy his electorate and the world at large. It could be argued that the expectations were so high, that he had no chance of fulfilling them. When it comes to his Middle East policy, however, his efforts have been abysmal. The work done so far, and the damage with it, seems to be too large to overcome. It is my view that, irrespective of what he may achieve in the Middle East during the remainder of his time in the White House, nothing will be enough to recover from his poor start. I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

Monday 12 July 2010

Can a Country be Jewish and Democratic?

Israel has frequently been criticised for being undemocratic due to the fact that it is a Jewish state. There are those who believe that it is impossible for Israel to be democratic as long as it is a Jewish country, and continues to adhere to the objective of maintaining its Jewish majority and character and protecting it wherever possible.

The preamble to Israel's Declaration of Independence confirms the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael to be known as the State of Israel. There can be no doubt that the driving force behind the creation of the State of Israel was the establishment of a Jewish country for Jews. The need for this in 1948 seemed to be clear to the majority of the world, as was evidenced by the vote at the United Nations which specified that a Jewish State will come into existence. Although the world order is different now more than 60 years later, the need for the existence of a Jewish state is as strong now as it was then. But, does the fact that Israel is uniquely Jewish prevent it from being a democracy? If so, what elements of being a Jewish state do not allow it to be a democracy?

While there appears not to be a universal definition of democracy, it is generally accepted that democracy is a form of government by the people, usually through elected representatives. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of English, 2009 says that democracy is "a system of government by the whole population of all eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives". This system of government is one which allows the majority to decide how they wish to be governed. Even though many democracies today have also built in minority protection provisions, this concept is not necessarily a democratic one to the extent that minorities are granted protections or preferences at the expense of the majority.

Although Israel's Declaration of Independence does not mention the word "democracy", there can be no doubt that the founding fathers had every intention of establishing a democratic country. In support of this, the declaration did set out in some detail the democratic principles which the nascent state would follow. It specified that the State of Israel "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations".

As a Jewish country, some aspects of Israeli society are governed by Jewish law. One example of this is the laws of marriage, which have no civil equivalent. This means that, in order to get married in Israel, it is necessary to hold a religious ceremony and be married by religious law. This is equally true for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. It also means that Israeli law does not accommodate intermarriage between the faiths. While this may be extremely inconvenient, especially for those who wish to marry somebody of another faith, it is applied equally to all citizens of Israel. Can this be viewed as undemocratic? Although it does limit who a person may marry under the laws of the State of Israel, this does not fall into the definition of undemocratic.

The Law of Return, a law which affords immediate citizenship of Israel to all people with one Jewish grandparent, is often cited as being undemocratic. It essentially gives preferential citizenship of the State of Israel to all those who are Jewish or descend from a Jewish grandparent. By contrast, those who do not have Jewish ancestry are obliged to make application through the usual channels for Israeli residency and citizenship, are required to meet qualification requirements and will need to be naturalised. Although the Law of Return is different from laws applicable in other countries, the concept of having residency and citizenship laws which apply to different people in different ways is not uncommon. One example is the laws of the UK which favour citizens of the European Union and of the Commonwealth over other citizens for residency. There are those who may feel that these laws are discriminatory in that they favour some people over others. This may be so, but this fact in itself does not make the country undemocratic.

Israel is a small, democratic and Jewish country. Although it is not a unanimous view, the majority of Israel's residents wish to run it according to Jewish laws and traditions, and wish to see it stay that way in the future. It is for this reason that the weekly day of rest is Saturday and this is also the reason why shops and offices close on Yom Kippur, but remain open on Christmas. The democratic process has determined that this is how people want to live in this country. Other countries choose to adopt laws and traditions of other religions, and this does not cause their democracy to suffer. There should be no reason why the adoption of Jewish traditions should bring Israel's democracy into question.

Because Israel is such a small country, there is always the danger that an influx of non-Jewish people may use the democratic process to change the nature of the country. We already see the ridiculous situation where Arab citizens of Israel are elected to the Knesset as lawmakers of the country, and who then act in a way that attempts to undermine the Jewish character of Israel. They even collaborate with Israel's enemies to place the country's security at risk and endanger her people. Surely this is an abuse of Israel's democracy.

In order to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish country consistent with the objectives of her forefathers, and in the spirit of the approval by the nations of the world at the United Nations vote, it is necessary to democratically ensure that Israel continues to have a Jewish majority. With the vastly varied birthrates prevalent among different segments of the population and the immigration of non-Jews (some even under the Law of Return), this may ultimately prove to be a challenge.

Israel's enemies continue to use every possible tactic to discredit and to de-legitimise Israel at whenever possible. This includes using the notion that a Jewish country can never be democratic because it promotes a Jewish character and gives citizenship preference to Jews. The truth is that these are policies employed by all democracies, albeit in slightly different guises. In fact, it is ironic to see how little democracy is evident in countries from which many of Israel's enemies come. Despite this fact, they have no shame in using this argument against the Middle East's only democracy, and one of the beacons of democracy in the world.

Could it be that these people, to whom democracy has suddenly become an important issue, are using this argument as an anti-Semitic tactic? Stranger things have happened.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Is Ahmadinejad Trying to Prepare the Groundwork?

Iranian president Ahmadinejad never loses an opportunity to criticise Israel or to suggest that the "Zionist entity" has no legitimate place on the world map. Although other leaders around the world, even the western world, may hold the same views, none has the audacity of the Iranian president to make these statements in such a public and confrontational way. Ahmadinejad has shown the audacity to go as far as even using the platform of the United Nations to make his outrageous and unacceptable declarations. Besides simply demonstrating the sort of anti-Semite that he is, what is really driving Ahmadinejad to continue making these statements?

The fact that he has the nerve to make such speeches is one thing. One may be prepared to accept this as coming from an uncouth and undesirable anti-Semite. The real problem is that the world seems to stand by and tolerate this most public and unacceptable display of racism without little more than a whisper or a murmur behind closed doors. By standing by and allowing Ahmadinejad to rant on without visibly standing up to criticise his public racism, the world essentially condones and accepts his behaviour. This, in turn, sends a dangerous message to the citizens of the world about what can be tolerated, and what is unacceptable.

The tactic that has been adopted by Ahmadinejad is clear, and has been successfully employed many times before. Over time, if Ahmadinejad continues to de-legitimise Israel in the way that he has been doing to date, the public will be tuned to accept any negative events that may befall Israel. An action such as an attack on Israel will simply be the next step in his strategy, and is likely to be accepted by the broader public as an entirely logical action in light of the substantial groundwork that has been done in preparing public opinion. Those who have been convinced that his statements are well founded will rejoice in any action taken to destroy Israel, and those who are not convinced will likely stand by and watch because they will have been readied to anticipate this as a logical next step.

Examples can be cited where the same tactic has been employed with great success. The implementation of Apartheid in South Africa also used a campaign of de-legitimisation before enacting the racism into law. By the time the racist policies were placed on the statute books, the general public was not only ready for this, it even expected that the legislation was necessary on the back of the substantial public campaign to make certain groups of people look like inferior citizens. The same tactics were used when forcing Jews to live in the Pale of Settlement during the 19th century and up to the end of the First World War. The general public was honed to accept that Jews were creatures that most people would not want to associate with, or live alongside. The action of expelling them to the shtetls (small Jewish towns) was supported by most citizens.

The most extreme, and perhaps most successful example of this strategy was employed by the Nazis prior to the Second World War. In the same way as Ahmadinejad does now, the Nazis never missed an opportunity to blame the Jews and to discredit them as human beings. By the time the extermination camps were built and the Shoah (the Jewish genocide during the Second World War) was initiated, the German population was fine-tuned to accept, tolerate and even desire that the Nazi government would take such action against the Jews. It was a logical next step to act out on the propaganda that the public had been fed about the Jews.

It is this strategy which Ahmadinejad and his cohorts are employing, and achieving some success. Even in our internet age where people are better informed and better able to make up their minds in an independent way, this propaganda is having an impact. I feel sure that there would be outrage if a Kassam or Katyusha rocket would be fired towards the sovereign territory of the USA, Sweden or New Zealand. In Israel, however, the world does not even receive the reports of the tens of rockets that are fired towards its sovereign territory on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. It is accepted as part of the landscape and not worthy of even reporting the event in the international press. The expectations have been set that firing rockets at Israel is "acceptable". There is no international outcry, no condemnation and no outrage. There is simply silent acceptance that this is the way that things are.

For Ahmadinejad, the first stage has been achieved. Israel can be publicly discredited and belittled without fear of international recriminations. Missiles can be fired at Israeli civilians without the world even noticing. The next stage is to ready the world for a missile attack that could kill vast numbers of Israelis or destroy Israel. Sufficient propaganda to convince the world that the "Zionist entity" does not deserve to have its rightful place in the family of nations may cause people to turn a blind eye to this as well. Perhaps, like in the Shoah, the public will expect Iran and the Arabs to follow up their propaganda and rhetoric with actions to destroy the State of Israel.

We live in a time when thousands of innocent citizens in Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other places can be exterminated in the most evil way while the world looks by, or looks the other way. The notion that these people are not of sufficient value for the world to step in to assist them before the tragedy, or that they may somehow deserve this treatment still seems to exist.

For Israel and Jews around the world, this is the moment when the Israel Defence Force (IDF) steps in to take corrective action. When foreigners try to intervene to ship weapons and arms to our enemies who seek to destroy us, the Israeli Navy will intercept the shipments and prevent this danger. Even if the operation does not quite go according to plan, the message is clear. While the world sits back and allows such actions to take place before their eyes, the IDF will not. While Ahmadinejad trashes Israel on every international platform, the IDF will act against him and his allies to protect Israel and all Jews, no matter what the opinion of the international community.

It is a shame that the international community continues to be so gullible in its views, and so impotent in standing up to threats of this type and genocides which too frequently still occur. The truth is that Ahmadinejad may not be satisfied with directing his attentions only towards Israel. Bin-Laden and others have shown that all western countries are on their radar, and not exempt from terrorist activities. Israel is a proud nation whose citizens are willing and able to stand up to this threat. Past events have proved this on countless occasions, and no amount of groundwork done by Ahmadinejad can change this.