Monthly Archives: July 2011

Fascism And The Debt Crisis

There is a class war in American to-day. But despite what you hear on Fox, America is in no danger of becoming ‘socialist’; it’s in danger of becoming a fascist state. This budget argument, and the ideologues in the House, exemplify this overall trend exceedingly well. I have tried to stay out of this mess because it’s so tangential to what I’m focussing on this summer, but I’m a bit angry to-day so I’m going to rant and vent. (And yes, I’m aware that I just linked to Glenn Beck above; the man is such a raving moron that I can’t believe anyone takes a thing he says seriously. When he says “do your homework”, it’s more than apparent than no-one in his audience does.)

The United States has been drifting steadily rightward since the 1960s; earlier if you count the massive post-war military build-up as a right-wing nationalist project and, incidentally, I would. The Cold War had nothing to do with democracy — the US did more to crush democracy in the Global South than the Soviets could have dreamt of doing. The whole ideological framework of the post-war period is a contest between capital, and specifically American corporations on the global stage, and the command economies that tried to escape this system. Their solutions, of course, were idiotic; the Leninist-Marxist and Maoist governments were deluding themselves. But I’m drifting from the point, so let’s get back to fascism.

We can define this ideology of government pretty easily by noting that it always contains the following elements: it is nationalistic, in that it espouses a chauvinistic attitude towards the world and waves the flag, so to speak; it is militaristic, in that it argues for national strength and uses jingoism to maintain virility and authority in the world; it is collectivistic, in that it seeks to mobilize the whole nation, or at least, the ‘authentic’ parts; it is eugenicist, in that it favours specific policies regarding birth and death in service of a higher cause; it is populist, in that it appeals to class-conflict and conspiracy theories; and it is authoritarian, in that it aims to indoctrinate everyone with a uniform message and denies the principle of loyal opposition, so vital to democratic systems.

All of these features are in ample display in the American right, and I should not have to provide examples for that to be quite obvious. Republicans, and frequently Democrats as well, wrap themselves in the flag, worship the military and military spending, push a uniform political/social message via propagandistic media, force the government into your reproductive lives, issue divisive statements and rally people around economic issues, and frequently defy the right of an informed citizenry to criticize the government. And, wow, for populist conspiracy theories look no further than Glenn Beck; I was appalled to hear my grandmother repeat his bizarre argument that financier George Soros is a “puppetmaster”. Try to remember how the Nazis used the Jews and repeat after me: scapegoating is populist manipulation! Anyway, looking at this stuff it becomes apparent that the only common elements of fascism missing in the United States are the anti-clericalism and anti-capitalism that emerged with Italian fascism.

The most threatening aspect of this political project, and clear evidence that it is working, lies in the media. 80% of our news sources are controlled by a half-dozen large corporations, and most of the rest are trying to get big or be purchased by one. These companies are often nakedly partisan and slant the news to suit their political or financial interests. Some of this is the simple effect of market forces — capitalism dictates that any profitable enterprise find a market, and why should the purveyors of news be immune? This is why public news broadcasters exist in the first place, from BBC to NPR (which explains why Republicans would love to destroy the latter; its lack of an agenda allows it to aim for accuracy first).

The whole media edifice, and in particular the News Corp brands like Fox, exemplify that great principle of authoritarian propaganda from Goebbels to Stalin: Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Turning the news into entertainment, as Fox has, makes for a successful business model, but it eviscerates reality in the process. We no longer hear of the world as it is, but rather, as certain ideologues wish it was or conspiracy theorists think it is. The success of right-wing punditry in the United States would make any authoritarian state envious.

Now, as regards this current budget and debt argument in Congress … What.The.Fuck?! The Republican brand seems to have been thoroughly coöpted by slavering imbeciles, competing with each other to show how much drool they can spill from their crooked mouths. Who are these freshman “tea party” fools? It’s bad enough that so many of them are proud creationists — I mean, what century is this? The material evidence for evolution is unassailable, and it takes a wilful ignorance to pass this over in favour of bronze-age mythology that is poorly translated or understood. But again, I’m off topic: What about their economics?

The issue these Republicans have over the debt ceiling revolves around a total resistance to tax increases, when this is absolutely the way to approach closing the deficit. Austerity measures enacted swiftly in other countries have all contained a mixture of spending cuts and new revenue, and while we fall closer to default like the insolvent southern European nations, those thrifty northern Europeans have been addressing their budget issues effectively. For cryin’ out loud, check out some of the coverage of this in The Economist, a free trade-supporting publication if ever there was one. But all we hear from those “tea party” lunatics is the same old rhetoric about supply-side economics that has been debunked by practical experience again and again and again.

Even a cursory examination of economic history will show you that the closer one gets to unregulated laissez-faire the greater the risk of economic melt-down, not to mention the accumulation of wealth at the top while the bottom 90% suffer. The notion that cutting taxes leads to greater investment, and hence job growth, is complete bullshit. Why not do your homework, America, and note that every significant tax decrease (including the gargantuan one Bush passed in 2001) has been followed by a decline in investment. No kidding. Why bother with risky investments when you can sit back and rake it in? Conversely, if a smaller slice of the profit will reach their own wallets, the wealthy have usually been driven to greater investment, since rapid growth in overall income is the only way to grow their own share. Logical, no? So why is it so damned hard to understand?

As to the tax rates themselves, this is another piece of ideological crap pedalled by class-warriors who want to expropriate more wealth to themselves. You want to see higher growth? Enact sensible taxation and investment. Why do you think that the Scandinavian countries are routinely classed amongst the most economically competitive and successful on the planet, despite having some of the highest tax rates?

Let’s take a look at the top tax brackets during the greatest period of economic growth in American history, the post-war 1950s and 1960s. For taxable wages over $400,000: 1951, 91%; 1952–1953, 92%; 1954–1963, 87%; 1964, 77%. And for taxable wages over $200,000: 1965–1967, 70%. The richest individuals are taxed at less than half that last figure now, and one-third the upper brackets from this period. Yet this is when the American middle class came into existence in the first place! This is the period that created our consumer culture, gave everyone a car and a teevee and a refrigerator, and moved millions into clean suburban neighbourhoods. Where was all that wealth coming from? High corporate investment and substantial government investment in infrastructure!

Now, remind me why cutting taxes on the top earners is necessary for economic growth. Oh, wait: you can’t. Taxing the wealthy has not led to any statistically-significant drop in economic growth, and the periods of highest taxation for the wealthiest have usually been in periods of rapid overall economic growth. America, you are being lied to in the name of a class war stoked by the wealthiest and playing on your ignorance. Wake the hell up! The middle class is disappearing, real wages have stagnated since the 1970s, fewer people can actually afford their lifestyles or homes, and the infrastructure that made this country a post-war powerhouse is crumbling into dust (collapsing bridges, anyone? *sheesh*).

Take a quick look at the periods of peak unemployment and poverty through 2001. Pay attention to the years in which these recessions take place. November 1948–October 1949; July 1953–May 1954; August 1957–April 1958; April 1960–February 1961; December 1969–November 1970; November 1973–March 1975; January 1980–July 1980; July 1981–November 1982; July 1990–March 1991; March 2001–November 2001. And need I remind you that George W. Bush began his presidency with a budgetary surplus, before plunging the country into its greatest peace-time deficit spending and a massive recession — more than one, technically.

Okay, now note the conspicuous absence of Democratic presidencies in most of these periods. Where are the Kennedy-Johnson years? Carter? Clinton? Not that their policies are necessarily the issue here, since they often observed the same economic principles. My point is that there is no correlation between the so-called “tax-and-spend Democrats” and recession or unemployment — quite the opposite, in fact. If you want an economic collapse, vote Republican and your chances probably go up, statistically-speaking.

My underlying reason for delving into this is that Americans are being effectively manipulated into supporting policies that are not in their best interest and which are founded on lies. Even that patron saint of the “tea party” crowd, Ronald Reagan, raised taxes when it became apparent that his tax cuts had led directly to an economic downturn. Meaning, he was actually pragmatic and smart enough to recognize when he was wrong. Somehow the modern Republican party has missed this pragmatism and embraced a kind of mediaeval dogmatism which allows of no deviation from the sacred gospel of low taxes.

Frankly, it’s disgusting, and insulting to the many Republicans I have called friends through the years. Conservatism is an honourable political stance, no matter what you think of it personally. Propaganda and deception on the current scale is anything but honourable. The extraordinary facility which the American right has demonstrated in crafting and disseminating a message is rightly the envy of would-be dictators everywhere. And while the Global South has, since the end of the Cold War, been shaking off the authoritarian régimes often imposed in the name of American strategic interests and embracing democracy, the land of its birth is steadily shrinking from it.

What happened to the public interest? Or to integrity? We elect whores to Washington, and then wonder why everything is so jacked up for us. If you want to fix the debt issues, get the damned lobbyists off of Capitol Hill; the ghost-written legislation their servile congressmen have been passing is a big part of the problem. Next, revisit the facts about progressive tax systems and their place in economic growth. Finally, stop listening to the damned lies purveyed by corporate media!

A long time ago the World War II journalist William Shirer predicted that one day the United States might go fascist by popular vote. With each passing year I grow more convinced that it will happen in my lifetime. And I am not happy.

Israel Hits A New Low

The Bedouin of Israel’s Negev desert are its poorest citizens. On Tuesday the state had the chutzpah to file a lawsuit for 1.8 million NIS against 34 families … for the cost of bulldozing and destroying their village repeatedly.

Think about that for a minute. The state came in 27 times and destroyed their village. Each time the Bedouin returned to claim their land and rebuilt. And the state wants to hit them with the bill for this!

The Bedouin have lived in this area and had claim to the land long before the State of Israel came into existence — since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Israel has been struggling to ‘settle’ them on land of its own choosing for decades, with only moderate success. Many Bedouin live in dire poverty in neglected villages with few services and no investment. The rest live in ‘illegal’ settlements they constructed for themselves, which have no services — no water, no electricity, nothing at all. And this for having the gall to build without permits, which the state is notorious for denying to Arabs, whether citizens or not.

At issue is a village seven kilometres north of Be’er Sheva (Be’er a-Saba) called al-Araqib, whose story is repeated in places all across the Negev where Bedouin live. The IDF evicted the residents from it in 1951, promising they would be allowed to return later. On the contrary, the state declared this stretch of desert to be land reserved for agricultural use, and therefore unsuitable for zoning permits! Since the state will not issue them permits to build on their land, they have gone in repeatedly and done it anyway — since to walk away, as they state requests, and settle in one of the sanctioned ‘development towns’ would be to renounce their ancestral claim to the land.

This they will not do.

So here’s how this plays out. Al-Araqib has been destroyed now 27 times. Locals estimate that the first, most substantial demolition cost them 4.5 million NIS, and included the uprooting of all the trees! Each subsequent demolition set them back about 150,000 NIS in lost construction costs. They keep going back because they have been fighting in the courts for years trying to secure legal right to the land they lived on before they were evicted in the first place.

The state is afraid of a precedent if the courts rule in favour of the Bedouin. Since bulldozing houses and uprooting trees, repeatedly, has failed to cow them, the state has decided to try a financial squeeze. The lawsuit was filed against 34 families for, as noted above, 1.8 million NIS. This works out to about $500,000 being sought from the poorest people in Israel. So, in addition to having to pay to rebuild their homes next time, they may need to raise a small fortune in order to pay for the bulldozers that will level them. Interesting, no?

Note well that the Bedouin are loyal citizens of Israel. Unlike other Arab Muslims they serve with the IDF and assisted in the birth of the state. They try to follow the laws and request permits to build but are repeatedly denied them while Jewish settlers move into the area and make use of the land. The state repays Bedouin honour and service with racism and persecution. Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that Israel is the only “democracy” in the Middle East.

Uninvited Guests In Rekhovot

Just for the hell of it, here are a couple of photos of some uninvited guests. These guys had a nest in the corner of the window, lodged back where they retract into the wall. I therefore got to listen to their shrill cries off and on for a couple of weeks. *lol* But one day I came home and found…

Can you believe this guy? Sittin' there tryin' to look all regal and dignified... YOU'RE A PIGEON! I'm not buyin' it!

And how about this:

Um, yeah. Notice the pigeon shit on the sofa? Nice.

This next is a shot of where they were last week, huddled in the back of the window recess where I couldn’t reach them and they didn’t have to leave:

Will you two kids PLEASE keep the racket down so I can get to sleep? *lol* In all fairness, some of the noise-attacks happened because a third pigeon wanted in. Other times they seemed to do it just for the hell of it...

And this last is of where they ended up, right before I closed the window…

Oh. bad move, dood! Bad move...

So, yeah, I guess I do feel a little bad about making these two love-birds homeless. And it was such a good place to hide! But I’ve slept better in the past few days than I have in more than a week, and when it’s a choice between my health and the pigeons’… they lose.

‘Effect Emptiness To The Extreme’

For the ending of this one, think not of the metaphysical allusion (as continuing without the body is nonsensical to me), but to the legacy one might leave from a life without judging others. It’s an interesting thought to explore — try it and see what it feels like. *grin*

Taken from section 16 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Effect emptiness to the extreme.
Keep stillness whole.
Myriad things act in concert.
I therefore watch their return.
All things flourish and each returns to its root.

Returning to the root is called quietude.
Quietude is called returning to life.
Return to life is called constant.
Knowing this constant is called illumination.
Acting arbitrarily without knowing the constant is harmful.
Knowing the constant is receptivity, which is impartial.

Impartiality is kingship.
Kingship is Heaven.
Heaven is Tao.
Tao is eternal.

Though you lose the body, you do not die.

The Lior Affair, Part III: Incitement To Violence?

Note: This article continues from this one and this one.

It is permitted to kill non-Jewish children, since they will grow up to pose a threat to Jews. That is the assertion at the heart of the outrage and arrests of several rabbis, and the subsequent uproar in the traditional community to defend them. The idea appears in a recent book, Torat HaMelekh, which aims to present a legal (halakhic) consensus on relations between Jews and Gentiles in peace and war. In this piece I will be pointing to the sources of the ruling above, and to the deep strains of racism and chauvinism that exist in corners of the Jewish world.

Now, I am not saying that Judaism is a racist religion, nor that all traditional Jews are racists. Like all faiths, Judaism exists in countless shapes and sizes, and has shifted and grown through each historical epoch. But it cannot be denied that there is a scriptural basis for extreme xenophobia and racism provided one chooses to interpret it as such. One could do the same thing for Christianity quite easily, as we saw in the Deep South during the slavery and segregation periods, when good Bible-believing whites just knew that blacks were inferior. Now the opposite is held, and rightly so, and it is defended with the same Bible — so remember that the passages and ideas I will cite here do not implicate Judaism itself as a faith or the Jewish people as a whole, but only those who choose to follow these teachings in this manner. And I would cite rabbi Lior as one such individual.

Jews and Gentiles, Race and Chauvinism

The arrests of Lior and Yosef were spurred by the publication of a book, Torat HaMelekh (The King’s Torah) by rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, which allegedly justifies the killing of non-Jews. Rabbi Lior was one of four well-regarded rabbinical authorities to have added his seal of approval to the book. The arrest was for possible incitement to violence as a result of endorsing such ideas. Given the strained situation on the West Bank, a theological justification for murder is hardly helpful. This makes an exploration of its position useful.

The central argument I will make, which I understand will be inflammatory in some circles, is that a particular strand of Jewish thinking has always contained a dangerous core of disdain for the rest of the world. One can see this lack of regard or interest in the way that very traditional (Haredi) Jews continue to remain within their own communities in every way that matters, refusing all secular education for example. That’s right — Haredi children have no exposure to history, politics, literature, etc., except that produced within their own religious tradition. And Haredi groups do not even agree on religious issues, of course, and follow different teachers. But I am off the subject; my point is that the extremely selective engagement Haredim have with the world is born, in my opinion, of a view of that world which implies that anything non-Jewish is unimportant, or even vile. This will be echoed in some of the quotes I will use below.

This view of the non-Jewish world was rather unimportant while Jews were a small minority living in other peoples’ lands. They kept to themselves, passed judgement on each other, and tried to avoid trouble with the outside world — even breaking their own restrictions when necessary in order to do so. An example of that might be Maimonides, the great philosopher and physician who welded a Platonic sensibility into mediaeval Judaism.

Following on the distinction between Jews and Gentiles founded on an interpretation of “fellows” in many of the Torah’s commandments (I will comment on this below), Maimonides wrote that for physicians “it is forbidden to heal a Gentile even for payment”. But, since this is hardly likely to make for neighbourly relations, he continues by saying “if you fear him or his hostility, cure him for payment, though you are forbidden to do so without payment.” Maimonides was the personal physician to the great Islamic conqueror Salah ad-Din, clearly a non-Jew. But could he really demand payment of Salah ad-Din?! In another passage he worms out of this, saying that treatment could be provided “even gratis, if it is unavoidable”. I point this out, not to show the flexibility of enforcement when there are threats to Jewish life, but because of the sharp distinction made between Jew and Gentile which these intellectual gymnastics sustain.

And yet Jewish writers down the centuries have tried to obscure this fact, since it was bound to incite even greater hatred for the Jews — and we all know how popular the Jews were in mediaeval Europe, right? This deception continues, as witnessed in an article I will quote a few times written by Tzipora Pinner and originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 7 July. The author, a settler in the West Bank, states flatly that “In Jewish religious law, the concept of race doesn’t exist. Any non-Jew can become a Jew through conversion. Many, including myself, have.” This may be true in one sense, but it is anachronistic — no-one had a conception of ‘race’ prior to the eighteenth century. Physical differences were noted, of course, but no-one had ‘scientifically’ divided the world into different groupings and made value judgements on their basis.

This has nothing to do with chauvinism, which has always existed in human populations and cultures. It is this which I am identifying with racism, though it necessitates we use a somewhat more flexible definition of ‘race’ as it is possible to convert to Judaism though obviously impossible to convert to being ‘white’. Now, I have been told before that, when I use the word ‘chauvinism’, I ought to define it as people seem not to use it any more, or use it accurately. I may have a technical usage in mind for my research project, but an off-the-shelf dictionary definition will do here: aggressive or fanatical patriotism, blind devotion or enthusiasm for one’s own side (as in war or sport), irrational devotion to — and belief in the superiority of — one particular group, be it race, party, sex, etc. That last is what gives rise to the most common expression including this word: ‘male chauvinist pig’. But as the definition shows, this is but one possible expression of the phenomenon.

The halakhah, Jewish religious law, is the source of the chauvinistic distinction between Jew and Gentile. One of the bases for this is the traditional interpretation of all places where the Torah refers to ‘brothers’, ‘neighbours’, ‘fellows’, ‘Man’, etc., wherein it is argued that only Jews are meant. Translations of the Bible in English do not reflect this distinction — it is why ‘brotherly love’ is taken to be a Judeo-Christian shared value, and why liberal American Jews can preach tradition and global consciousness simultaneously. It is also why Haredi Jews can scoff at such ‘un-Jewish’ notions.

Take these two pieces from Leviticus as emblematic. In 19:18 it says: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Your neighbour here is a fellow Jew, and “your people” is probably the tip-off. From the same book, in 19:10, we have: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Here again, only the Jewish poor are meant. Liberal Jews can point to lines like this to support charity in general, but this is not the traditional interpretation, and it is that tradition which animates the fundamentalists, of course.

Let’s move gradually forward in time with a few more examples. This first is particularly egregious, and comes to us again from Maimonides, from his Guide for the Perplexed (book III, chapter 51). This passage is commonly omitted in English, incidentally (care to guess why?). “Some of the Turks and the nomads in the North, and the Blacks and the nomads in the South, and those who resemble them in our climates. …their nature is like the nature of mute animals, and according to my opinion they are not on the level of human beings, and their level among existing things is below that of a man and above that of a monkey, because they have the image and the resemblance of a man more than a monkey does.”

The sixteenth-century Prague rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as the MaHaRaL) gives the standard interpretation of the Torah’s words about human beings, with a proto-nationalistic twist: “The perfection of creation, which relates to the human in particular, applies to Israel and not to the nations.” He goes on to indicate that comparing Israel to other nations is like comparing humans to lower animals. Hm, okay.

Israel Shahak points to the Hatanya, a fundamental Habbad text, for another good example. You know the Chabbad people, right? Some of them — the Lubavitchers in particular — have a reputation for being very welcoming of non-Jews and unusually moderate for Haredim. This book suggests that the existence of non-Jews is “non-essential” in the world (it was created for the Jews, remember?), and says that Gentiles are ‘satanic creatures’ “in whom there is absolutely nothing good”.

Taking us into the twentieth century, Avraham Yitzhak Kook was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate in Palestine, and the founder of the Religious Zionist tradition to which Lior is an heir. He noted that: “The difference between the Israeli soul, its independence, its inner yearning, its aspiration, its characteristics and disposition, and the soul of all the other nations, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a human being and the soul of a beast.” You can see how this builds on the Maharal’s statement above, yes? This kind of Israeli-specific nationalist chauvinism is simply an updated rendering of a traditional view.

Let’s come forward a few decades to a near-contemporary book — Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, first published in the 1960s. The book gives terms in Yiddish and provides a helpful etymology noting the language of origin and its meaning in that language. There are two entries, however, that are blatantly falsified or misleading. The entry for shaygets, whose main meaning in Yiddish is a young Gentile male, says only “Hebrew origin”. Okay… meaning what? The entry for shiksa, the complementary term for a young Gentile female, states that the Hebrew meaning is “blemish”. That sounds bad enough, right? It is also false. He does note the correct Hebrew source word (which he writes as “sheques” showing the influence of Yiddish on his Hebrew) but is better rendered as “sheketz” in my opinion), so let’s look it up. The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew and English Dictionary defines sheketz (שקץ, page 240) as “unclean animal; loathsome creature”. Ouch.

This final example I will give comes from last year, in a weekly sermon of Shas spiritual leader Ovediah Yosef from October. The “Goyim [the Yiddish for non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel… With Gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die, he’d lose his money. This is his servant… That’s why [the non-Jew] gets a long life, to work well for this Jew.” Holy shit! And this is a widely-respected religious teacher, with hundreds of thousands of admirers. He continues: “Why are Gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why Gentiles were created.”

On the basis of these and many more examples I would argue that traditional Jewish teachings are deeply chauvinistic, and therefore that in a modern context in which Jews are considered a national grouping again, it is effectively racist. Sure, one can convert to Judaism, but does that do anything to mitigate the extraordinary bias against non-Jews? In traditional interpretations of the Torah, the world was created for the Jews, period. The fact that Jews have not been at the centre of everything reflects their fall from God’s favour, which the messiah will rectify when he makes the whole world ‘right’ again… right? This is the ultimate source of rabbi Lior’s racism, pointed to in my previous article.

“The Best of the Gentiles — Kill Him”

Rabbi Lior tells is: “Our law has passed every test throughout our generations”. Okay… but it is the interpretation of it throughout the generations that is now failing the test of modern statehood. Author Israel Shahak passes on an anecdote about an Israeli soldier who asks his rabbi if it is okay to kill Arab women and children in the conflict. His rabbi answers by quoting Talmud: “The best of the Gentiles — kill him; the best of snakes — dash out its brains.”

Clearly, this is not a view commonly held by Israelis, who on the whole are very good, moral people, and no more likely to delve into atrocities than anyone else. But the fringe elements who take these things both literally and arguably out of context in order to justify extreme repression, dispossession, or outright slaughter, are a problem that needs to be recognized more generally.

Consider a booklet published in 1973 by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army and written by its then-chief chaplain Col. Avidan. He writes: “When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed … Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized … In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.” The booklet was later withdrawn from circulation, but the rabbi was never properly disciplined for urging soldiers to disobey orders and participate in atrocities.

Israel makes much of the military’s principle of “purity of arms”, by which it means that its soldiers are held to a high moral standard. And this may be the case for the secular soldiers, but the rabbis have a different interpretation of that principle. In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud there is the rule “whoever comes to kill you, kill him first”, which suggests a very active defensive posture but it still requires someone to be attacking you. Broadened into a general rule, this makes for a good principle in warfare. But the rabbis will tell you that this precept applies only to Jews, and that in wartime Gentiles may be presumed to have evil intent, almost regardless of their actions.

This is interpretation not an isolated case. In fact, there are a great many like it. Rabbi Shimon Weiser argued in the yearbook of Midrashiyyat No’am, a prestigious religious school, that: “According to the commentators of the Tosafot, a distinction must be made between wartime and peace, so that although during peace time it is forbidden to kill Gentiles, in a case that occurs in wartime it is a mitzvah [a religious duty] to kill them…” Do you see how these examples relate to the charge levelled at Torah HaMelech, that it justifies the killing of innocents, including children?

Sometimes this killing can be, um, accidental. According to halakhah the saving of a Jewish life is of supreme importance. It supersedes all other laws and restrictions save only those of murder, adultery, and idolatry. But the Gentiles are another matter entirely. For them, the Talmud essentially argues that while it is forbidden to kill them at random, their lives should not be saved, either. The most famous formulation of this occurs in Tractate Avodah Zarah: “Gentiles are neither to be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down [into it].” That is, should you pass by a suffering person, feel free to ignore him if he is not a Jew.

I am reminded of an anecdote about a man who was hit by a car on the sabbath. Someone on the scene asked a Haredi man to call an ambulance. The man in question first enquired if the victim was a Jew. Since he was not, the man refused to break the sabbath law that keeps him from using a telephone. What does that sound like to you? Maimonides, that great mediaeval interpreter of the Talmud, put it like this: “As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war… their death must not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued, for it is written: ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow’ – but [a Gentile] is not thy fellow.” So much for mercy and charity.

Some would go further than this. Some interpreters of the Shulhan Arukh (a commentary on Talmud) have argued that so far as Gentiles go, “one must not lift one’s hand to harm him, but one may harm him indirectly, for instance by removing a ladder after he had fallen into a crevice… there is no prohibition here, because it was not done directly.” It is perfectly permissible to remove the ladder?! So they could justify the murder of this one because they were not the direct cause, i.e., did not push him into the crevice. How they mistook removing the ladder for an indirect cause of death is a mystery I am not qualified to unravel.

The lives of Jews and non-Jews simply have different values. As mentioned above, saving the life of a Jew is a paramount duty; likewise, the murder of a Jew is one of the three most heinous sins one can commit. The Jewish authorities back in the ghetto days had the obligation to punish the Jewish murderer of a Jew most severely. But the murder of a non-Jew was not addressed by the courts at all, since it was a sin only in the sense of the Noahide Laws (those applied to all humans after the flood) and not the Mosaic (that is, the Torah). Furthermore, indirectly causing the death of non-Jews was considered no sin at all. Consider that troubling notion along with the paragraph above.

This gets worse, though. If a Gentile was under Jewish jurisdiction and murdered anyone, Jewish or not, capital punishment was called for. But if the victim and murderer were both Gentiles and the murder converted to Judaism, he was not to be punished at all! How’s that for differing values on human life?

For most of Jewish history this kind of chauvinism was largely irrelevant. Jews did not have the power to harm anyone, and in fact were the frequent victims of extreme persecution and violence. But the victims of such treatment might be expected better to resist visiting it on others. These latent strains of violent chauvinism in Jewish religious thought may be one factor among many that helps us to see why it has been so easy to rationalize the condition of Palestinians.

Returning to the book at the centre of last month’s firestorm, the points within it may be common knowledge among Haredim and many Religious Zionists, but clearly not to seculars, and certainly not to America’s Reform Jews. Tzipora Pinner tries valiantly to minimize the importance of its imflammatory content. “The fourth chapter deals with situations in which there is a conflict between saving the life of a Jew versus saving the life of a non-Jew. In the fifth chapter, we find explanations of laws pertaining to times of war, and the sixth and last chapter tackles harm to innocent people. It becomes clear that the religious laws examined mostly pertain to extraordinary circumstances of conflict involving danger to life.”

But this is precisely my point. For many, the conflict in the West Bank is an existential one, and some Religious Zionist rabbis tell their flock that the Jews have been at continuous war with the Palestinians since 1967. Extraordinary circumstances? Not to these people. And perhaps not to you or your friends, Ms Pinner, since you choose to live in a West Bank settlement.

This book might conceivably be taken as harmless, since the points it raises were already in circulation in many schools of Orthodox thinking and are well-grounded in Halakhah. What can you do about ideas that actually are a part of the Jewish tradition? (Well, I suppose you do the same as in any branch of the monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths — you adapt your interpretations to fit a more enlightened society than the bronze-age civilization that originated that tradition. *grin*)

The problem and the danger of this book lies, however, in popularising these notions in conjunction with certain ideological currents of Religious Zionism. In the most obvious formulation, consider this sequence.

A) This book argues that in wartime it is permissible to kill children as they will grow up to be enemies.
B) Some Religious Zionists argue that the Jews have been in a constant state of war with the Arabs since before the State existed.
C) Therefore, an easy halakhic defence of genocide emerges.
D) If it becomes widely accepted, it presents a moral justification — perhaps even an imperative — for immoral acts.
(I use moral in the first instance of this last point the way the religious do — following god’s law is morality, period. I use it in the second in the philosophical, secular sense.)

I should be clear: I do not think this will lead them to perpetrate mass murder in the near term, but it lays the groundwork for it when the opportunity presents itself. If someone believes that it is desirable and permissible to do the unthinkable, well.. Let’s say that I think it becomes a question of whether, and not when. And this simply… Must. Be. Stopped. That great slogan of the post-Holocaust world, “Never again”, should apply to all human beings, not just to the Jews.

Found A Home In Jerusalem

I walked a lot of miles to-day so I’m not sure I have the energy to say much, but there are a few things worth reporting.

I finally found a flat in Jerusalem that I like. It was a bit more than the other ones I was looking at but my starting price range just doesn’t buy shit in the big cities. Or rather, it -does- buy shit, and I want more than shit. *grin*

This one has a good location in a cute old neighbourhood and is within 20 minutes of the Central Zionist Archive, the main bus station, and the Givat Ram campus. It’s quite large, with two balconies and a nice-size kitchen, and a washing machine — which a great bonus after the way I’ve been washing my clothes! There’s one flatmate, but I wasn’t able to meet her as she was out of Jerusalem while I was there. Can’t say that’s the most comfortable idea in the world, but I think the gal I spoke to is a good character reference, so we’ll have to see if I’ve read -her- correctly!

I move up there on the 4th, so I have — what — another nine days in Rekhovot? I’ll keep trying to do the Cairo run from here, but if not it will happen some time next month. In the mean time, I am working on my next trips into the West Bank. I am going to do some day-trips from here to Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit. Reckon I will save the ones up to the Nablus area and Hebron area until I’m living in J’lem, as it will be much easier & cheaper from there.

So anyway, I was up in Jerusalem to-day and got to see some of the changes since I lived here last year. All the torn-up streets are fixed and the light-rail system is operational, though not in service. The trains are everywhere doing tests, running stretches of the line in sequence as if they were in use. It would be helluvacool if they started the service before I left!

My return home was complicated by the time of day I left. The last direct bus to Rekhovot was gone, so I took the one that runs through several other cities first. It did indeed get me to Rekhovot, but dropped me several miles short of my goal (on the far southern end of the city instead of the north where I live), and it seems that the sherut (shared taxi) operations end at 2200. This left me with walking and hitch-hiking as my options, and I was having a hard time convincing anyone to stop for me!

After walking about a mile a middle-aged religious couple finally picked me up. They had been out celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary, and were kind enough to go out of their way to take me most of the way home (I walked the last six blocks). The conversation in the car was.. interesting. I got a sermon in mixed English and Hebrew on how the Israeli people are good and that they want peace, but that they cannot give up any of the land because god gave it to them and no-one can change that. It seems that the 1967 War was a clear part of his plan to return the land to Jewish control. I had to promise to go back to America and tell people this. So, I’m telling you, America! The Israelis want to keep all the land and god said so, so there. *grin*

Violence And Sleep

I’m not going to take that place in Tel Aviv. My gods it was … bad. But I have a couple of promising leads in Jerusalem. A bit more cash, but at least they will have a bed.

Look at the fun that I missed in Cairo! So sad.

Violent clashes erupt in Egyptian capital

Ah, well. Maybe next time.

Cairo Or Bust

I should have been on my way to Cairo tomorrow morning. Once again, the bus company has cancelled the trip. This leaves me wondering, just how to do this! My plan right now is to run to the embassy to-morrow (it’s closed to-day) and apply for the visa directly. Then, when I have it in hand, I’ll cross the border on foot and find transport on the other side. It’s risky and a pain in the tukas, but if the buses won’t run because Israelis won’t go there, and the airfare is $700+, I don’t see many other option.

Anyway, I’m off to Tel Aviv to meet with the fella I might rent a flat from for next month. It’s a studio in the Florentin district of southern Tel Aviv, which puts me close to Jaffa (yay!) and the central bus station (convenient!). After the meeting I will look into a Jordan trip, since the Egypt one looks to be put off for a couple of weeks (visa processing time, grr). I’ll find out about that to-morrow, though. I can do the planning for the northern West Bank and Jordan trips in the meantime. And, of course, finish my other posts and work on my Hebrew! I did some work on the third Lior piece this morning since I was up so early. It’s coming along quickly so maybe I’ll have it later to-day, depending on what time I’m back from Tel Aviv.

Nes Tsiyona, Photo Collections, And My Muse

I haven’t been writing here in the last few days, as you may have noticed. I’ve not been in the right frame of mind, I suppose, because the desire just hasn’t been there. Reckon I lost my Muse or something. Anyway, I’ll be back on track shortly. I need to put up the third Lior piece and my Hebron story, both of which there are notes for but I need that creative vibe to write out. Soon, my pretties, soon.

Yesterday I took a nice long walk north from Rekhovot and into the small city of Nes Tsiyona. This is one of the old communities in Israel, settled in something like 1883 during the First Aliyah, but it never grew into a bigger city. Until recent years it was decidedly rural, and it has retained a bit of that character with large fields open to view and some old farm houses scattered about.

There is a large technical-industrial park in the far south of it as it borders Rekhovot (the complex is shared, in fact) with gleaming tall buildings. But there is apparently a deal in place to keep residential buildings at eight stories of lower. A large new neighbourhood being built in the south-east of it seems to be all of about that height.

The core of the city looks like almost any other Israeli city, with shops along a central drag and side streets filled with housing blocks. There’s a larger proportion of small, single-family dwellings, though. It also has a large fountain, which you don’t see very often, and a petting zoo with ostriches and tortoises and lambs, etc. It’s really quite cute.

I have filled a lot of my bad mood with productive activities aside from day-tripping and writing, though. I’ve continued my Hebrew study, since this environment does seem to foster the drive there! And I managed to sort and upload my trip photos to date. There are albums for all of the cities I’ve been in this time so far. I’m trying not to duplicate shots that I’ve done in the previous couple trips, so my Tel Aviv album will not have pictures of the beach, for example.

I still need to finish uploading photos from those two trips, in fact, and I did a bit more of the 2008 one when I was caught up here (the rest of my Nazareth and West Jerusalem shots are now up). All that 2008 now lacks is the rest of the Haifa pics and the Druze towns, plus the big archaeological museum I photographed fully. As for 2010, I never did the last card, which means I haven’t gotten through my pictures from Mount of Olives and Gethsemane and a few others places in the Old City. Not much, and I might get it done during this trip if there’s another down-day.

To-morrow I’m meeting a fella to discuss subletting his place for August. It’s even cheaper than where I am now, and located pretty close to the central bus station in Tel Aviv, which should be convenient. I’ll talk about it later if I end up taking it.

Dinner’s done, so I ought to attend to that. Then, some more Hebrew and off to sleep. I’ll get the Hebron and Lior posts up soon, I promise… *lol* Good-night, World.

‘Does God Have A Future?’

Commenting on the birth of one ‘personalistic’ god in the last post brought this passage to mind.

Excerpted from the concluding chapter of A History Of God, by Karen Armstrong.

Those atheists who preached emancipation from a God who demands… servile obedience were protesting against an inadequate but unfortunately familiar image of God. … [T]his was based on a conception of the divine that was too personalistic. It interpreted the scriptural image of God’s judgement too literally and assumed that God was a sort of Big Brother in the sky. This image of the divine Tyrant imposing an alien law on his unwilling human servants has to go. Terrorizing the populace into civic obedience with threats is no longer acceptable or even practicable, as the downfall of communist regimes demonstrated so dramatically in the autumn of 1989. The anthropomorphic idea of God as Lawgiver and Ruler is not adequate to the temper of post-modernity. Yet the atheists who complained that the idea of God was unnatural were not entirely correct. We have seen that Jews, Christians and Muslims have developed remarkably similar ideas of God, which also resemble other conceptions of the Absolute. When people try to find an ultimate meaning and value in human life, their minds seem to go in a certain direction. They have not been coerced to do this; it is something that seems natural to humanity.

Yet if feelings are not to degenerate into indulgent, aggressive or unhealthy emotionalism, they need to be informed by the critical intelligence. The experience of God must keep abreast of other current enthusiasms, including those of the mind. …

Ever since the prophets of Israel started to ascribe their own feelings and experiences to God, monotheists have in some sense created a God for themselves. God has rarely been seen as a self-evident fact that can be encountered like any other objective existent. Today many people seem to have lost the will to make this imaginative effort. This need not be a catastrophe. When religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly: if the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded. Yet in the past people have always created new symbols to act as a focus for spirituality. Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life. The aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterize so much of modern life seem to indicate that now that they are not deliberately creating a faith in “God” or anything else — it matters little what — many people are falling into despair.

In the United States, we have seen that ninety-nine percent of the population claim to believe in God, yet the prevalence of fundamentalism, apocalypticism and “instant” charismatic forms of religiosity in America is not reassuring. The escalating crime rate, drug addiction and the revival of the death penalty are not signs of a spiritually healthy society. In Europe there is a growing blankness where God once existed in the human consciousness. …

Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.