Sunday 26 September 2010

Even Freedom of Speech Has Limits

The newspapers have been filled with outrage over the remarks made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his address to the United Nations General Assembly meeting. The US delegation walked out of the meeting during his address, and they were followed by representatives of other countries. A number of European countries have come out in condemnation of the statements made during his speech.

The whole sequence of events gives me a feeling of déjà vu. It is like an autumnal circus that takes place each year surrounding the UN General Assembly meeting. The Iranian juggernaut rolls into New York City (along with those from many other countries). There is the usual round of talk show appearances and press conferences. It all culminates in Ahmadinejad's address to the General Assembly which criticises the USA and other western democracies. It uses every opportunity to delegitimise the State of Israel and warn of her pending downfall and destruction. The address is traditionally accompanied by a walkout by one delegation or another, and is followed by condemnations from countries who support the concept of mutual respect between nations. Once all the noise has died down for this year, we can expect the same behaviour and reactions next year. Surely there is something flawed in the whole ridiculous episode.

Having the right to address the United Nations and to say what you wish, is a right to freedom of speech afforded to all member nations. As with most rights, the right to freedom of speech is also accompanied by an obligation. The obligation is to use your freedom of speech in a way which does not blatantly make untruthful, disrespectful or inflammatory statements towards other nations. The charter of the UN also requires member countries to respect the human rights of other member countries, including their right to exist as a sovereign country and member of the UN. There is clear evidence that the Iranian president has repeatedly violated this, and with it, the charter of the United Nations. So why is he allowed to continue to behave in this way without any attempt to call him to account?

In spite of his behaviour, Ahmadinejad continues to enjoy the rights that are afforded to nations that abide by the rules of the UN. He is invited to the General Assembly meeting each year and allowed to make his address from the podium. He is given free rein to appear on talk shows and hold press conferences to further promote his vitriol and hatred. Not only is he allowed the freedom to do this, he is also afforded all the attention and the headlines as newspaper editors once again clamber to express alarm at his hateful statements. Each year, he is forced to step up the hate in order to ensure that he will succeed in making the front pages. This year, he decided to encroach upon the "holy of holies" in terms of the American people, the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks on New York City and other locations around the USA.

The fact that Ahmadinejad had the audacity to suggest that the US government had somehow been behind the events of 9/11 in order to support the continued survival of the State of Israel, clearly crossed a red line for the American government and its citizens. Besides making statements which can clearly not be supported by the facts, his accusation is absurd. How the events of 9/11 can be shown to support Israel is beyond my understanding. Other than making this ridiculous accusation, Ahmadinejad did not make any attempt to explain how such action on the part of the American government may have helped Israel. It is almost as if his sole intention was to insult and enrage the Americans and the Israelis. This is the same person who is being allowed to continue to enrich uranium and pursue the development of an extensive nuclear program that could produce nuclear weapons.

The world's reaction on this occasion seems to be the same as before. It will simply make a few comments of objection, and then invite him to address the General Assembly again next year. By not taking more decisive action against this unacceptable and objectionable behaviour, the world essentially sends a message that it is acceptable to behave in this way. I accept that it may not be appropriate to take actions against Iran, as this is likely to punish the innocent people of Iran who have already been cheated at the ballot box to force this man upon them as their president. I do believe, however, that action should be taken personally against Ahmadinejad. This is personal, and the world's response should mirror this fact. The time has come for Ahmadinejad to be banned from addressing the UN, and to be barred from entering the USA and other western democratic countries. We should deny him the headlines which keep him in power in Iran, and which support his evil rhetoric and actions. There are precedents for actions against individual leaders such as Mugabe, and I would not hesitate to place the Iranian president on this list of unwanted and undesirable personalities in the same way.

Many years of trying have shown that a policy of engagement does not work. It affords the opportunity for Ahmadinejad to pull the wool over the eyes of western countries even further. The only results that have been yielded thus far are to strengthen his world standing. Sanctions have not helped the situation in any way, other than to buy Ahmadinejad more time to develop his nuclear weapons under the noses of the inspection teams. Even though action is already very late, it is better now than never. Decisive action is now required, and fast.

If we are to leave our children a world that is safer than the one we live in today, the influence of leaders like Ahmadinejad needs to be killed off without hesitation. It is time for the world to stand up and to take action against those who threaten freedom and mutual respect. By alienating this evil man and making him a persona non grata in all countries that value real freedom of speech, it may help to bring his downfall in Iran where the majority has already shown itself opposed to him.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Is Israel Really a Jewish Country?

The issue of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish country has once again become an issue in the context of the current round of direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians agree to recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in the proposed two-state solution. For some, however, it seems that this is a step too far.

What right does Israel have to define itself as a Jewish country? Even though the population register shows that 80% of its citizens are Jewish, is this enough? Brazil, Italy and The Philippines do not define themselves as Catholic countries despite significant Catholic majorities, so why should Israel insist on being recognised as a Jewish country? A recent survey in Israel showed that more than 40% of its citizens regard themselves as secular Jews. This is as opposed to those who consider themselves to be religious or traditional Jews. Does the fact that so many citizens are Jewish by birth, but don't participate in Jewish religious traditions and practices reduce Israel's right to be defined as a Jewish country? There seem to be many questions whose answers could have a significant impact on Israel's future, and on the shape of her future.

Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people, and nothing has changed during the course of the last 62 years. At the time of independence in 1948, Israel represented one of the only safe-havens for Jews to live free of persecution and anti-Semitism, irrespective of whether they wished to practice their Judaism or not. It is this principle which is still in force today. Israel remains a Jewish country, and being Jewish is part of its character and make-up. It is not coincidental that the only day in the week that schoolchildren have off from school is Saturday, the day of the Jewish Sabbath. It is not by accident that the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange trades on Christmas Day, but not on Yom Kippur (or any of the other Jewish religious holidays). These practices have been put in place because of the fact that Israel is a Jewish country, and not simply to be different from other countries. Jewish practices are applied uniformly to all who live in Israel whether they be religious, secular or somewhere in between. They also apply to non-Jews who make Israel their home.

Being Jewish is not governed by a person's level of religiosity, or the extent to which he or she observes Jewish law. A person is determined as being Jewish at birth if he or she is born to a Jewish mother. No further qualifications are required. Even though there are those who renounce their Judaism in favour of other religions or beliefs, Judaism does not really believe in the possibility of becoming non-Jewish at any time. It is true that non-Jews can convert to Judaism, but this is a one-way street which does not allow Jews to escape their roots entirely.

The most holy day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, was observed over the past weekend. It seems to me that this is one of the true tests of how Jewish Israel really is. A few facts about Yom Kippur really stand out for me, and I am reminded of them each year that I am in Israel. They seem to be highly relevant to the argument of whether Israel is truly a Jewish country or not. Somehow, Israelis across the political and religious divides seem to return to their roots on Yom Kippur day. It is interesting to me that a recent survey revealed that only 28% of all Israelis had decided that they would not fast on Yom Kippur. In addition to all religious respondents and the vast majority of traditional respondents saying that they would fast, the survey revealed that half of the secular respondents also said that they would fast. During the course of Yom Kippur, no vehicles can be found on the roads in the cities across Israel. Although Jewish law demands that vehicles not be driven on Yom Kippur, there are many secular people who do not subscribe to this law but still do not drive on Yom Kippur. It is part of the atmosphere and the tradition of the day that all Israelis choose not to drive their cars. The fact that children take advantage of the vehicle-free streets to ride their bicycles and scooters in large numbers does not, in my view, detract from the spirit of Yom Kippur. A really lovely tradition is for pedestrians to walk in the middle of the street while the cars stay away. It allows people to be outdoors together in an atmosphere of unity and togetherness, that is difficult to find anywhere else that I have been.

In the city of Ra'anana where I live, the municipality arranged religious services in school halls throughout the city. These services are directed at regular people who have no affiliation to a synagogue, but still wish to attend a Yom Kippur service. I attended one of these "Yom Kippur for all" services, and observed a basketball hall packed to capacity of people who otherwise do not attend religious services. This is in addition to the hundreds of synagogues across the city who were filled with regular members and visitors.

Immediately following the conclusion of the fast of Yom Kippur, sounds could be heard across the city of people constructing their temporary dwellings, Sukkot, for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) that follows a few days after Yom Kippur. The construction of these temporary structures is a tradition followed by many secular Jews in addition to their religious and traditional brethren. Once again we have evidence that, no matter how secular the society is, there are certain traditions and practices of Judaism which are uniformly followed by a vast majority of Israeli Jewish citizens. These include the celebration of the Sabbath in some way each week, and celebrating the festival of Purim amongst other things.

If there is a requirement to prove that Israeli society follows Jewish practices, the evidence seems to me to be overwhelming. It is almost inconceivable that Israel's status as a Jewish country would not be respected and publicly recognised in a peace agreement. If Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries can be a Islamic countries, there is no reason to prevent Israel from being a Jewish state, the only Jewish state. If this simple fact cannot be acknowledged and set in stone in an agreement, for me there can be no peace deal.

Sunday 12 September 2010

The Symbolism of the Shofar

Judaism has numerous symbols which are closely associated with its religious practices. By far, the best known of these is the shofar, the ram's horn. Over the past few days we have celebrated the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and there is no event in the Jewish calendar more closely associated with the shofar. The link between Rosh Hashanah and the shofar is so strong that one of the alternative names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, which means the day of the sounding of the shofar. With the dulcet tones of the shofar still ringing in our ears after hearing its blasts over Rosh Hashanah, it seems a good time to examine the significance of this symbol more closely.

The sounding of the shofar fulfils a commandment of Rosh Hashanah. The commandment is not to sound the shofar but, in fact, to hear the sound of the shofar. Moses Maimondes (also known as the Rambam), who was one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, said that the sound of the shofar serves to awaken the soul and to turn its attention to the important task of repentance. The ten days following Rosh Hashanah are the ten days of repentance until Yom Kippur when each person is believed to have his or her fate sealed for the following year.

Another reason given for the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to remind us of the binding of Isaac, and the blind faith in G-d shown by his father, Abraham. At the last moment, Abraham was instructed not to kill Isaac, but rather to sacrifice a ram in his place. It was at that moment that Abraham noticed a ram nearby which was caught in a bush by its horn. The ram was duly sacrificed and Isaac's life was saved. This event was reputed to have taken place on Mount Moriah, the location of the present-day Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and is one of the reasons why Mount Moriah, the holiest site to Jews around the world, was chosen to be the site of the Jewish temples.

This began a strong link between the shofar and this holy site throughout the ages. During the days when the holy temple stood on this site, the shofar is believed to have been sounded each Shabbat. Since the destruction of the temple, the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat has been specifically outlawed by rabbinical decree such that, even if one of the days of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not sounded on that day. During the period that the Ottomans ruled over Jerusalem stretching for 400 years from 1517 to 1917, a law was passed prohibiting Jews from sounding the shofar in the area of the Western Wall. The Turkish rulers feared that this may be perceived as a call to war, and result in a Jewish uprising. This prohibition continued during the period of the British mandate which followed the Turkish rule. Despite the prohibition, many Jews somehow found a way to continue blowing the shofar at the holy site on Rosh Hashanah as well as on Yom Kippur at the conclusion of the fast. Some even sat in jail after they were caught transgressing the law.

Perhaps the most famous shofar blasts at the Western Wall were those heard soon after the capture of East Jerusalem and the holy temple mount following the Six Day War. These were blasts of triumph and of joy, not of war or calls to repent. Shofar blasts have been heard on other joyous occasions such as the arrival in Israel of Jews rescued from danger, or the triumphant return of Israeli soldiers from dangerous missions.

Even though the shofar emits fairly standard musical notes, somehow its notes are not simply standard to most Jews. I know that the sounds of the shofar manage to reach a place in my heart that no other sounds manage to reach. It seems like I am not alone in this feeling. The Rambam's reference to the awakening of the soul is part of this. At the conclusion of the Holocaust, a group of Jews went around Europe with the intention of reclaiming Jewish children who had been lodged with well-meaning gentiles and institutions by their parents in an effort to at least spare the life of their children. The children frequently did not know that they came from Jewish families, and proving that they were Jewish was often a difficult task. Amongst other tactics that were used to identify Jewish children, a shofar was blown in their presence. Very often, the reaction of the Jewish children to the shofar blasts was unmistakable, thereby clearly identifying them as Jewish. It was a familiar sound that reached places in their soul that no other sound could reach.

It is pertinent that the Rambam interpreted the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah to be directed at those who are not taking action and being apathetic. During the ten days of penitence, it may viewed as appropriate for the blasts to be directed at those who are acting in an evil or inappropriate way, as a sign for them to mend their behaviour and seek repentance. But this is not the case. The Rambam asserts that the blasts are directed at those who are not doing anything at all, those who are taking no action. The blasts are a bid to awaken their souls to convince them to do something positive.

The message is as relevant today as it was when the Rambam lived in the Middle Ages. Our challenges as a nation continue to test every fibre of our being. None of us can afford to sit back and do nothing. We cannot afford to allow things to be done to us. Now is the time to stand up and take action, both on a personal as well as collective level. In addition to personal repentance, action needs to be taken to to free Gilad Shalit and to progress towards peace with our enemies. It is also the time to take action to stand up for our rights as Jews, and to assert Israel's right to be a Jewish country in the community of nations. It is the time to identify and fight against those who call for our destruction, and who those who take action to destroy us.

I am truly honoured to have the shofar that was blown by late grandfather, whose blasts continue to find their way to Jews each Rosh Hashanah, including those of his great-grandchildren. My grandfather would have been so proud of what we have managed to achieve as a Jewish nation in the short 30 years since his death. As they did in those days, the sounds of the shofar still inspire Jews to take action. This is undoubtedly a large part of Jewish history, and a significant contributor to Jewish achievement to date.

As we hear the blasts of the shofar at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur fast at the end of this week, it is my prayer that these blasts will inspire us and our country to ensure that the undivided city of Jerusalem continues as the capital of the Jewish homeland. And I look forward to this time next year when shofar blasts will, once again, freely ring out at the Western Wall in anticipation of the rebuilding of the holy temple at this site.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Is Peace Really Achievable?

The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams have finally arrived in Washington and already held their first meetings in the process of direct peace talks. Newspaper reports are filled with stories about how little Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had to say to each other during the official dinner held on Wednesday evening. But the more pressing question is whether the process can deliver a real peace for the two nations, or whether the teams are simply going through the motions to satisfy those who have been exerting significant political pressure on the two leaders.

It is true that, until now, I have been extremely sceptical about the value of the process of direct talks. The Palestinian Authority president has been dragged kicking and screaming, and wholly against his will to the negotiating table. Netanyahu was not elected on a platform of peace-making, and is not regarded as Israel's most likely peace-maker. The Obama administration took more than a year until it even got around to showing any interest in Middle East peace-making. When adding these factors to the lack of success in the past of reaching any meaningful progress towards an agreement, there is little surprise that the prospects for peace look remote.

There is a well-known phrase that is often used to convince sceptics that peace may well come from an impossible situation - "you make peace with your enemies, not your friends". This is, of course, very true and serves to remind us that peace only comes out of extreme situations, and not out of circumstances where the parties are close to each other. We have seen the seemingly impossible when Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. These examples, and others involving other countries, serve to prove that peace can be achieved when it appears most unlikely. On this basis, we should feel optimistic that there is at least a dialogue taking place. While there is dialogue, there is hope. Without the channels being open, there is no prospect of peace.

When looking back on the peace agreements that were reached with Egypt and Jordan, there seems to be one common factor which allowed these agreements to be reached. In both cases, the countries capitulated in their rigid position of refusing to recognise Israel. Their willingness to recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state was surely the turning point in facilitating a peace agreement. For me, this is the most fundamental requirement without which a peace agreement can never be achieved. Up to now, the Palestinians have not agreed to recognise Israel, and this has been the most significant obstacle to peace. Although Hamas has made it clear that they have no intention to recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, even Fatah has not done enough to make this acknowledgement clear. When Yassir Arafat agreed to recognise Israel and to change the charter of the PLO to remove the clause which denies Israel's right to exist, he reneged on this commitment. The offending clause still remains part of the PLO charter. It is hardly surprising that, under these circumstances, peace between the two nations has been out of reach.

Despite the fact that I have been doubtful about the prospects for a real and long-term peace, I feel more optimistic about the fact that dialogue is currently underway. This gives at least a chance, no matter how remote, for peace to be reached. My new-found hope is predicated on the assumption that the Palestinians will be prepared to give public acknowledgement to Israel's right, and to make statements internally to their own people and to the world to recognise this right. Netanyahu has demanded this of Abbas as a pre-condition, and I anticipate that this acknowledgement will be forthcoming. Once both parties have established the basic tenet that the other has a right to exist, the peace negotiation has some basis. It shows the most basic respect for the other party, no matter how distant their respective positions may be. It seems ridiculous to be negotiating with somebody who does not recognise your right to be there, as much as this has been the strange situation until now.

Announcements have been made from Washington stating that one year has been allocated to reach an agreement. For an agreement to be reached, and in this time frame, the path is long and difficult, but not impossible. Both sides will be forced to make significant concessions, but these will need to be made in the spirit of honest negotiations and mutual respect. In the event that this is not achieved, severe damage could be done. It may serve to reinforce the fact that this peace may just be too difficult to conclude.

It is my hope and my prayer for the new year that some significant progress is made. Even to the sceptics like me, the prospect of this not happening is too painful to contemplate.