Category Archives: Religion

Sufis And Beer

Stepping back a little, I owe you the story of how my museum day ended.

So I had gotten in contact with the fella named Amor who was involved in some radical publication projects and knew a mutual friend. He decided that I deserved to see a local Sufi concert of sorts — it’s technically a religious ritual, but it’s really performance art. I’ll get back to it in a minute.

I met him by the KFC in Tahrir square, which is the one and only Western-style fast food joint I saw in the city. he had a companion with him — a German gal named Sophia with whom he flirted relentlessly. I have never seen a guy work so hard to get in someone’s pants. I felt distinctly awkward to be the fifth wheel on what would doubtless have made for a better date without me!

Anyroad, we headed from there to a place that he thought he knew the way to, but really we were lost. We wandered for a long time and missed close to an hour of the show. This would be a recurring theme throughout the night…

The ritual was interesting, albeit too slow for me. The singer was extremely passionate and clearly drank in the attention. The lyrics were about loving god and being full of God in the heart and stuff like that; typical Sufi themes. But he seemed more interested in pleasing the audience than God, which I found oddly endearing (being not one for religious music). The band was great — a tabla, an oud, a violin, a wooden flute, and a percussionist. But the rhythm was hypnotic. I found myself swaying to it and nodding off repeatedly.

In the show we met a friend of Amor’s and we piled into his car. The intent was to take us closer to where we could get a beer and talk. It being Ramadan there was only one place they knew in the city where you could drink. But not only was his friend an usually scary driver (nearly hitting people a couple of times), but neither of them had a clue in hell where they were going!

His friend finally dropped us off and we began to walk, but we started not far from where I met Amor, which made the entire drive a waste of time. Not only that, it was in the wrong direction. He then set about trying to find the place the way Cairenes do: by asking everyone and their uncle that you pass! You see, street signs are pretty rare and addresses are non-existent, at least in the sense of being printed on the actual buildings. If you don’t know anyone in the area to call as you approach, you’re just supposed to ask people.

As it happened, few people could give good directions, or didn’t really know, or Amor just couldn’t tell what they meant, since we wandered for what had to be at least an hour and was probably more. Amusingly, we got closer and closer to the street, then to the building, where I was living. Wonder of wonders, the place ended up being in the same building! Had I been able to ask the directions we could have gotten them a lot faster, since I knew the streets in that part of the city better than Amor did. (He’s from Alexandria and only moved to Cairo recently, and he doesn’t live downtown.)

This place ended up being one of the facilities used by the Greek consulate, and they had just one type of beer. Didn’t matter, I had a couple big ones because there had been no beer in my diet for a week, hehe. The two of them smoked (most people smoke) and we all talked a bit. They both knew some of the people at a nearby long table, as the expatriate community is not that large and people tend to network. One of them came over to join us for a while, then went back and forth for the rest of the night.

We talked about Amor’s work with a bunch of creative types and the art magazine they put out, about girls and sex and how sleeping with people upset Amor’s parents — and about how his father locked him in his room for a month as a kind of rehab!

And we talked about my research project (the fourth party, whose name I forgot, asked and seemed very interested), and then got into Amor’s experiences in the revolution, which is why I came out in the first place. There were tales of baton charges and getting his head knocked, about being arrsted multiple times, etc. One particularly good one had him in the back of a police car when it was surrounded by pro-Mubarak thugs. They tried to drag him out of the car (likely to kill him) and the cops said, ‘hey, why don’t we just let them have you?’ Scary, no? But they ended up driving off and Amor lived to fight another day.

I don’t want to get into much more of this stuff, but we talked until closing time and then went out onto the street. We parted company and I went looking for a place to buy some water, while the two of them wandered off into the night. I wonder if he got lucky (she was pretty cute!). *lol* Then I headed back to my hostel and went to sleep. Zzzzz.

‘Thoughts on God And The Invention Of Religion’

Excerpted from The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, 1794.

It has been my intention, for several years past, to publish my thoughts upon religion. I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject, and from that consideration, had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it, could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.

The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true.

As several of my colleagues and others of my fellow-citizens of France have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?

My First Visit To Hebron

I have fallen way behind on this lately. In my defence, some of that time I’ve spent out of the house on other wee road trips, and most of the rest on Hebrew study. But still. I have to fill you in on my run down to Eilat soon, but first we should catch up with the Hebron post I never got ’round to! I mean, hell, the following story comes from 18 July!

Right, so the day started at Jamil’s house, where I had stayed the previous night. We got ready and headed out to Hebron to get him to hospital for his injured leg. (Incidentally, Hebron is the English; it’s Hevron in Hebrew and al-Khalil in Arabic.) We rode a service taxi (what Israelis call a sherut and Palestinians a servees) down to the city, then stopped at an intersection and transferred to a regular taxi. At this point I had the bright idea to take off on my own into the city while Jamil went on to hospital. I wasn’t going to do him any good in a waiting room, and it seemed a shame to waste the day that way. I got back out of the taxi, went back to the main road, and caught another service taxi to the old city.

End of the line.

The taxi stopped at the end of the line, just as you enter the old city. I got out and headed down the street, taking pictures, looking in shops, etc. I was pretty conspicuous, and I got plenty of awkward glances, but also some smiles and nods. Several people stopped to talk to me briefly, and one made a determined effort to ingratiate himself — a fellow name Jad. I ended up spending the next few hours walking around the city with him, talking about life and such. He’s a management student and talking to me was good practice for his pretty broken English I’m sure. He’s in his last year at the local university and is hoping to get into an MBA programme somewhere. Anyway, we talked a bit about ourselves, sure, but also about the city and stories of people in it.

A shot from the old city.

Jad wonders why I take so many photos.

Another shop-lined old-city street

Jad and I wandered through the old streets as I snapped photos, and slowly made our way towards the Ibrahimi Mosque. Now, I am aware that just using that designation is a political statement, but I do so because of who I was walking with. The Ibrahimi Mosque (al-Haram al-Ibrahimi) is also the Me’arat HaMakhpela, and in English the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The Cave and the structure above it has been divided in various ways for close to two millennia, since the Byzantine era, when it was both a synagogue and a church. With the initial Arab conquest the church was replaced by a mosque, and with the exception of the Crusader period it has stayed that way since. When the Mamluks came to replace the Ayyubids in the 13th century Jews were barred from the Cave, being allowed only up to the fifth, or later seventh, step. It remained a mosque, with the Jewish sites outside but nearby, until the 1967 War. After that it was divided, with about 20% turned over for a synagogue. Until 1994 it was at least open between the two sides; now, access to the cenotaphs and holy places on either side are restricted to one religious group and there is an ugly separation barrier run down the middle. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Stairs up to the Mosque/Cave complex.

By the time we had reached the mosque I really wanted to use a toilet. There are, of course, no public toilets in the old city, though there is one just outside the mosque for visitors. This was by far the worst restroom experience I have had. The toilets were the squatting kind, basically holes in the floor. There is no toilet paper and no way to flush, just a spigot nearby and a small bucket. You’re meant to squat, shit, then use the water to clean yourself — with your hands. No fucking way. Luckily, I am a clever traveller and I had a roll of t.p. in my backpack. *grin* The process was still awful, as was the stench; I have a massive natural gag reflex, and I was heaving. *sigh* Anyway, let this be a lesson to anyone travelling in the area — be smart and also bring your t.p., and use the toilet before you leave any place that actually has a real toilet!

holy shit! no way!

Heading up to the mosque itself, we had to pass the ubiquitous security check. I had to remove all my junk, hand over the bag, and take questions about whether I was Jewish (since I was headed to the Muslim side and was not obviously Muslim). I lied. *grin* The inside was impressive, and hard to describe so I’m going to put up a few photos. I’ve gotten lazy since the first time I used photos, so no compositing.

Coming onto the main floor of the Mosque.

You can see here the minbar, courtesy of Salah ad-Din.

We wandered around, talked a bit; I got to see the cenotaphs built in the Mamluk period, and place my hand on a stone where Adam’s footprint was left. *cough* A Jewish tradition has the cave as the burial place of Adam & Eve and the gateway to ‘heaven’. An older tradition has this as the burial place of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and their wives (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah), which is the basis of its holiness. So that’s kinda nifty to see, eh? The minbar in the mosque was built at the order of Salah ad-Din. Ah, and there’s a covered hole into the deep cave below the mosque, where the tombs would be found, I imagine. There’s a metal cover over the opening with small holes in it, and if you look through them you’ll see a candelabra hanging from a rope in order to add some light to the space.

Peering into the Cave.

One of the cenotaphs and its enclosure.

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit was to see the site of the 1994 Goldstein killings. It was an emotional moment for me, standing in the space where 29 people were gunned down and over a hundred others shot. I paused for some time thinking about the scene and what it must have been like to go through something like that. The ancient sites hold a historical interest for me, but no religious draw. A visit to the site of a massacre, perpetuated in the name of twisted religious faith, is a pilgrimage that makes much more sense to a secularist like me.

I had wanted to see the Jewish side as well, but with Jad along with me it would not have been possible. I may do that the next time I’m in Hebron. Just outside the mosque we picked up another party, a short Arab fella whose name I have forgotten. The three of us walked and talked through along some of the spaces adjacent to the Jewish section of Hebron, AKA “H-2”. This section of the city houses some of the most radical of settlers — a group of people who are drawn by a sincere religious connexion to the ancient sites, but who are also animated by an extraordinary level of racism. I won’t go into any of that here, though.

Settler compound right outside the Mosque/Cave.

A street divided and once-busy shops abandoned.

The long road leading up to the mosque is lined with shuttered shops. This was once a thriving Muslim neighbourhood and market, but nearly everyone has moved out of it because of conflict with the settlers. There is a dividing line in the road and Arabs can only walk on one side of it or risk being shot. There are no cars in this area save those driven in by settlers. We passed two schools that have been closed down, and the large empty square that used to be a bus station.

Neighbourhoods deserted on account of settler threats.

An ethnic-cleansing graffito, the Jewish settler counterpoint to maximalist 'Free Palestine' calls.

An Israeli car on a Jews-only road passing the shuttered Arab girls' school.

Finally we stopped into a ceramics factory and shop, the only remaining business in the area, and the workers there offered us tea. Interestingly, they make a large number of Jewish-themed items like seder plates and little ‘shalom’ signs for your wall. These items are sold to tourists in Jerusalem, not to the settlers, but it still says something that — even a stone’s throw from a radical settler compound — these men make their living catering to the Jewish economy. Twenty years after the “peace process” began, this remains a fully colonial relationship.

Painting ceramics for Jewish tourists.

Jad asked for a photo -with- me and folks back home ask for photos -of- me, so here we are -- the second photo taken of me this trip. I've since trimmed the beard considerably; it was getting very warm...

We parted ways with our companion at this point and Jad & I made our way back through the old city. I stopped to buy a water, which Jad said would be expensive here but I was parched by this point. The vendor actually refused my money, though! It was a unique surprise. We passed a little further along and suddenly I saw something I needed to stop for. I’ve always wanted to pick up a keffiyeh, in large part because of the modern-historical association (Arafat, etc.) but had never gotten ’round to it. I stopped because this hawker had great deals on some in the right colouration, but they were of pretty thin material with bad stitching. I ended up getting one that was still very reasonable but was in the better of three piles. Not having a local political reason to, and not being an Arab meself, I can’t imagine actually wearing it — I would feel utterly foolish or pretentious — but it will be nice to hang up somewhere. Cheesy, no? Shut up, you! It’s better than collecting thimbles. *grin*

Jad and I stopped into a café he knew to rest and refuel. I had a couple of large mint teas while he puffed away on a nargileh. I have many times been offered a drag on one of these and it always seems subtly rude to refuse, but I’ve never smoked a thing in my life and I’m not about to start now. The teas here are amazing, with long strands of mint running the length of the glass and providing an incredibly rich taste. Jamil offered me tea like this at his place, too, though in a more traditional setting — on a silver tray, with tiny glasses — but the taste is what matters, right?

I sipped tea and we chatted about girls and music. He asked to see pictures of Amanda (my ex) and told me how beautiful she was — he kept trying to get me to show him more. *lol* We talked about how different things are in our respective love-lives, as in his culture men and women will not sleep together until married, period. He was unbelievably jealous, and didn’t want to stop talking about girls or sex — it was really funny. *grin* So I indulged his curiosity as best I could given our language gaps, and we moved on to music.

Having my iPod with me I tried to explain how common it was now to collect diverse forms of music. He found it odd that I have several Arabic artists on there when I understand so little. (Truth be told, -I- find it odd that I can pick up as much as I do from conversations, given how little time and effort has gone into it.) I noted that people around the world listen to and appreciate music from English-speaking nations without understanding the words, and said that listening to music in languages I am studying or wish to study helps to train the ear; you begin to pick out automatically those words you do know and it starts to build a context for them.

New friend at an old café.

When it came time to leave, Jad refused to let me pay for anything. He went in to talk to the proprietor, and then we headed out. He walked with me a little while longer, until we reached the main road. We had exchanged Facebook information at the café and he made me promise to look him up when I was next in town. (He had asked me to stay the night at his place then, but I was worried about Jamil and decided to go back and make new plans.) I then hopped into a service taxi and headed north.

Ah, that reminds me — I forgot to mention that I had spoken with Jamil about an hour earlier. He had found out that his leg was in much worse shape than he thought and he was supposed to stay off of it. He had gone back home to al-Aroub without me, so I had to get back on me own. This was, of course, great fun.

When I got back we discussed what to do. I did not want him to exert himself on my account, and was prepared to leave for Bethlehem immediately and return in August after he’d had time to recover. I wanted to do a lot of walking still, both in the camps and the villages surrounding, and at the nearby settlements, and he said that he would walk with me around the places he could (the Arab parts). Obviously this would not happen now, and I did not want to risk his feeling obligated to show hospitality and take me anywhere in his condition. Besides, he had a couple from Germany coming over that night and it would have been even harder for him to entertain us both, though he protested and thought I should be able to stay. He did convince me to stay a little longer and go with him to the neighbouring village of Beit Jala to meet with some friends of his. I am very glad I did.

He had his car this afternoon, so we drove to Beit Jala. There we stopped into Mousa and Becca’s house. Mousa is a Palestinian man and Becca is an American Reform Jew who moved to Israel originally as a committed Zionist. Obviously, things changed for her, and she later married Mousa; they have an adorable little girl. Both work for an organisation called The Center for Freedom and Justice, which works with rural Palestinian communities and helps them to resist the settlement enterprise through non-violent means. They plant trees (and have added 3,500 trees in the Saffa region of Beit Omar), operate a free library and youth centre, organise a women’s embroidery collective to raise money to support extended families, run summer camps and a preschool, and are trying to raise money for a greenhouse.

The group relies on a rotating cadre of international volunteers, many of them American; I met a few of these as they came back from an ‘action’ somewhere (I could not understand what it was they were doing that day). They teach strategies of non-violent direct action to youth from the Hebron and Bethlehem areas. I would love to chat at length about what they do, given how interested I once was in anarchist direct-action politics, but we’ll see if I have time. I’m intending to return to the area in a couple of weeks to explore the settlements down there, so perhaps it will work out. Either way, Becca’s story was fascinating — her odyssey from Jewish nationalism to resisting Israeli policies and marriage to a Palestinian — and I was happy to have met them.

Okay, that’s about all you get of that story. I made my way back to Bethlehem, hopped the bus to Jerusalem, passed the security check-point, had a long conversation on the bus with a young British archaeologist who had a day off and ran down to see Herodion, and made my way from Jerusalem central station to Rekhovot. I have a few other stories to put up, so that’s the end of this one. Time to go and find something more substantive to do than wonder what I’m doing! *lol* Have fun!

‘Man Is Condemned To Be Free’

This perspective of Sartre’s strongly influenced my sense of personal responsibility. If I have no excuses — if I cannot blame my parents, my nature, a deity, a government, a system — then I must act such that in every moment I reflect the reality that I would choose. While I do not deny determinate factors in the world — I did not create my genes, I did not choose this war — they are not relevant to my responsibility to choose who I am, nor what I do. If I acknowledge no excuses, then I must create myself through my actions and my choices — as I believe we all must, though most will swiftly abdicate this responsibility…

Excerpted from: Existentialism is a Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre.

When we speak of forlornness, a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense.

About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and they be considered as having an a priori existence. It must be obligatory, a priori, to be honest, not to lie, not to beat your wife, to have children, etc., etc.

So we’re going to try a little device which will make it possible to show that values exist all the same, inscribed in a heaven of ideas, though otherwise God does not exist. In other words — and this, I believe, is the tendency of everything call reformism in France — nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we shall have made a God an outdated hypothesis which will peacefully die off by itself.

The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can’t start making excuses for himself.

If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature. In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses.

That is the idea I shall try to convey when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion.

The existentialist does not think that man is going to help himself by finding in the world some omen by which to orient himself. Because he thinks that man will interpret the omen to suit himself. Therefore, he thinks that man, with no support and no aid, is condemned every moment to invent man.

‘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*

‘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.

Visiting Bethlehem And Al-Aroub Camp

On Sunday I took off to Jerusalem in the early afternoon, though I was considerably delayed and had expected to leave in the morning. I got to the central bus station in J’lem in decent time, then made my way to the street and looked for the right bus to take to East Jerusalem. I ended up getting help in Hebrew from a Filipino immigrant; this is an increasingly common sight in Israel. That bus dropped me at Jaffa Gate instead of Damascus Gate, but that was fortuitous as I wanted to wander into the souq and buy a few tee-shirts anyhow (some of the ones I brought turned out to be poor choices).

Now, my intent was to take a bus down to Bethlehem and there meet Jared, but he ended up cancelling at the last minute — i.e., when I called to let him know I was in J’lem and on my way to Damascus Gate to pick up the Bethlehem bus! This turned out not to be a big problem, as the fella I was to meet the following day, Jamil, was gracious enough to meet me a day earlier. I made my way to East Jerusalem, passing first through the shops in the Old City to pick up those tee-shirts (which plan failed by the way — these have necks that are too small! Ah, well.) I picked up the Bethlehem bus in the small station near Salad ad-Din street and off we went.

The bus ride was pretty quick, and I got to see a little more of the settlements in the southern part of the Jerusalem municipality (I had seen some of this area last year). To get out of Jerusalem we passed through two tunnels, and past miles of razor wire and stretches of the “separation fence”, AKA the wall. We stopped once only briefly on the way into the West Bank so that Palestinian guards could take a look. I shared the bus into Bethlehem with a bunch of locals (i.e., Arabs, not Jews *lol*) and a large group of American Christian missionaries in identical purple tee-shirts. The bus dropped us at the wrong location, but Jamil managed to find me very quickly (he saw the bus stopping). As I telephoned him he came up behind me and said “you are calling me”, which caught me off guard for a moment!

A shot of the fence running along the side of the road.

Since I was in central Bethlehem for the first time, Jamil offered to show me around a little. We walked for a while through the streets and towards the Basilica of the Nativity, i.e., the church on the spot where Jesus was born. You know how these things are determined, right? The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, and obviously no-one kept records of Jesus’ birth, so if you’re generous you can say people remembered and it became a tradition, or more likely someone made it up later for the sake of exploiting Christian pilgrims. In a further curiosity, all of the oldest recorded tales of the birth outside the gospels note that it took place in a cave outside town, and this church is built over a grotto, so why is it that all those nativity sets people put up in America have it looking like a stable? *grin*

Coming up on the Church of the Nativity

The basilica itself is an impressive edifice, and its foundations go back to the fourth century making it perhaps the oldest continuously-used church in the world. The first structure was built by order of Constantine’s mother Helena in 327, but it was burnt down in a revolt in the early sixth century. Justinian ordered the construction of the current church in 565, and that building has survived more-or-less until the present. It was expanded and altered by the Crusaders, and also subsequently, which is why the current flooring is about a foot higher than the Byzantine one. They have opened a few sections of the floor to reveal the startlingly-beautiful mosaics still buried underneath (one expects the Crusaders just didn’t like Greek designs, hehe).

One of those stunning, 1500-year-old Hellenistic mosaics buried beneath the floor.

Of course I went down into the grotto below the church to see the traditional birth place. In fact, I had a photo taken of myself there, which is a very unusual choice. (I generally get only one or two photos taken of myself on these trips out of the many thousands of other shots taken.) Jamil suggested one inside the church, I think on the assumption that I cared more about the religious significance than I obviously do. *grin* But the folks will be happy to see it, no doubt. The star on the birth spot was donated by France in 1717, though it was stolen and the replica there now (dishonestly still showing only the original date) is from the mid-nineteenth century. At any rate, I’ve now had my hands on the places where Jesus was supposedly foretold, born, worked, bathed, executed, and buried. (If I get up to the eastern Galil again I’ll see where he taught as an adult.)

Ugly, huh? I didn't take the shot but I will take credit for being that ugly. You can see the star marking the birth-spot in the bottom right.

After the church Jamil and I caught a service taxi back to his home, which is in the refugee camp al-Aroub. About the camp itself I will have more to say in a later post, since I would like to include photos and discuss the peculiar nature of these towns. The main entrance has been roadblocked by Israel for ten years, which has to suck for Jamil since his place is very close to it and he now needs a long detour in if he drives (the family shares one car). His home was lovely inside, though I saw only the courtyard, foyer, and den. It being a Muslim household and there being women within, getting to wander was never likely. The décor in the den was interesting in that all the art pieces within were made by Jamil’s brother (I have linked to a Web site of his work here.) The stone pieces was more impressive to me than the paintings in the room, though two of them were quite striking; Jamil showed me a large photo collection on his computer of the other stone work, as well as a few very evocative paintings with political themes.

Speaking of political themes… Jamil had two friends over that night to have a discussion with me, though as usual I cannot remember their names. The conversation was interesting in that we had one speaker with almost no Arabic (me), one with almost no English, one who could understand a bit of English but not speak a word, and poor Jamil trapped in the middle. We talked for several hours it seems, and my throat was constantly parched! We used my research topic to launch into a chat about “the situation” in Palestine. I laid out my own work carefully, and found much approval unsurprisingly, since any work that seems to undermine the settlers is a benefit to Palestinians. We then talked a bit about how the cultural shift complicated resolution of the conflict, as it gave the settlers a powerful incentive to stay and fight indefinitely. As it happens, Jamil’s friends are also maximalists — they think there will be peace when all of the Jews leave. I had delicately to note that this is about as likely as an elephant being born from my left ear.

Like many Palestinians and their sympathizers, Jamil’s friends took the position that the Jews should “go back to Europe where they came from” (this despite more than half the Israeli Jewish population having a non-European origin). I had to explain to them that the vast majority of the people in Israel were born there and had no-where else to go; they had not stolen the Palestinians’ land, their parents and grandparents had done so. I also made the case that returning land stolen more than 60 years ago was illogical, and made a couple of historical parallels, including the obvious and contemporaneous one — the reshuffling of borders and expulsion of populations after World War II in Europe. If the Poles don’t get Wilno/Vilnius back, and the Germans don’t get Königsberg/Kaliningrad back, why should the Palestinians think they will get Jaffa/Yafo back?

The conversation ended quite late at night and Jamil was visibly exhausted, though it took me a moment to realise this. He went off to sleep and I got on the computer briefly and was able to chat with Robin. I got to sleep somewhere around 0200, intending to be up around 0800 (and woke a little earlier, actually). A few months ago Jamil had fallen off a ladder and shattered his leg, leaving him with a limp which was much worse that day on account of some swelling. By the time we had gotten back I was getting concerned about him having overdone it just to show me around a little. As it happened, he was originally planning to see his doctor the next day anyhow, so I made sure that we were planning to do that first thing. I will pick up this story with our journey into Hebron in a subsequent post.

By-the-by, if anyone’s curious I am uploading the full Bethlehem photo set this evening to the gallery, and the Hebron photos will likely follow to-night or to-morrow.

The Lior Affair, Part II: The State And The Rabbis

Note: This article continues from this one.

The future of Israel is in the hands of the fundamentalists. Given the relative size of the religious population to-day this might seem absurd, but not only is their power disproportionate to numbers, those numbers are growing at a phenomenal rate. The Israeli government has long kowtowed to the rabbis and the religious in order to gain their approval — and votes — on other issues. This has been going on for as long as the state has existed, since Ben Gurion, its founding prime minister, made a deal with the religious parties in order to avoid dealing with the secular right. But that agreement, inaugurating the Status Quo, could well be the state’s undoing.

The recent arrest of a handful of prominent right-wing rabbis has exposed this fault-line clearly, but once again most of the public averts their eyes while the politicians do damage-control in order to keep the religious happy. This sad cycle plays out again and again, and the secular population throws up its hands and says, there’s nothing we can do. But in politics inaction is also an action.

Is it sacrilege to arrest rabbis? The last time I checked, Judaism did not have a priesthood any more and the rabbis were teachers, not divine agents, but it is in the nature of fundamentalism to grant extraordinary power to leaders. It is worth observing that the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, had wanted to arrest and question Lior long before now. Until this arrest he has always been shielded by cowardly prime ministers, too dependent on the votes of the religious to risk their ire. This is a losing strategy in the long run, as it only increases their boldness and puts the state increasingly in the pocket of a fast-growing radical population that seeks to destroy its democratic ideals. The respect the Israeli government shows to a group which does not in turn respect state institutions is patently absurd.

Binyamin Netanyahu, current prime minister of Israel, responded to the arrest of rabbi Lior by noting that “Israel is a law-abiding state” where “the law includes everyone”. Would that this were true! But Netanyahu refrained from commenting on any of the more salient parts of the arrest, like the fact that Lior evaded questioning for two months out of contempt for the law. Netanyahu may make some noise right now that the law should be applied equally, while the spotlight is on and foreign media might be watching, but he will go right on with the old deferential treatment as soon as the cameras are gone.

Much more honest are the Knesset members for the National Union — the most right-wing party list in the Knesset. Its leader, Yaakov Katz, responded to the arrests by threatening revenge! This from a member of parliament, mind you. “We will get back at whoever is responsible”, by which he means not only the state prosecutor Shai Nitzan, but the prime minister as well. “Netanyahu and those under his command will be remembered forever in disgrace for the arrest of this genius of Israel,” Katz said referring to Lior.

“All those who speak morning and night about the destruction of the State of Israel, informing on our soldiers to the United Nations and to our enemies, extremist left-wing writers who say explicitly that the settlers must be harmed, they have immunity. The prosecutor’s office would never issue an arrest warrant against them. I say that it will ultimately even be clear to Shai Nitzan that the strong people of all the generations are the loyal Maccabees of God and Torah and we will win, big time. All of those committing those criminal acts ostensibly in the name of the law will be brought to justice.”

Wow. So, anyone who doesn’t agree with radical settler policy and the desire to impose Halakha (religious law) on the nation are traitors who will be punished when these “real Jews” have control of the country. Another MK from National Union, Michael Ben Ari, told a crowd of demonstrators that “the Torah will not bow before any law” and that anyone “who does not understand that is igniting an inferno. There is no supertanker that can put out the fire that will start.” Do you see yet why I think that a two-state solution would push Israel towards civil war?

Contempt for the law is an increasingly loud refrain from the rabbinate, and hundreds of them espouse views that line up with the politics of National Union. These men are on the public payroll and their salaries are paid by ordinary Israelis who are often disgusted by the racist and homicidal comments that come from them. Is it too impertinent of me to ask why?

Chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar condemned the arrest of Lior as a “grave offense to an important rabbi’s honor.” No respect for the rule of law there, eh? Looking beyond the current situation, the rabbi of Tsfat ruled that it is strictly forbidden to rent apartments to Arabs and twenty other town rabbis publically supported this obviously illegal decree. Half a year later the state’s attorney general has still done nothing to protect the rights of Arab citizens. Deference. Other rabbis have prohibited the employment of Arabs, which has also gone unprosecuted. Deference. It seems that if it comes from the mouth of a rabbi the state is unwilling to enforce the law.

The second rabbi who had refused to turn up for questioning, Yaakon Yosef, the son of Shas spiritual leader Ovediah Yosef, was arrested shortly after Lior. Like Lior, Yosef was questioned for less than an hour, then released. In response there were demonstrations in Jerusalem on the 3rd and 4th; hundreds attended the first, thousands came out the next day. Some of these people were a bit, um, unhinged. Two passing cars carrying Arabs were attacked and one of the passengers needed medical attention. Was anyone arrested? No. Police simply pushed the protesters back onto the sidewalks, for which they were called Nazis. Methinks this crowd forgets who it was that inspired the riots on Kristallnacht; if anyone is mirroring Nazi tactics it is their own leadership.

At the protest the next day Dov Lior reminded the crowd that “the role of rabbis is to guide and instruct the public.” Indeed, sir, which is why your comments are considered an incitement to violence! Consider what these men were arrested for — endorsing a book which argued that it was permissible to murder non-Jewish children. “The role of Israel’s rabbis is to explain the Torah,” Lior told the crowd. “The words of the Torah must not be distorted. Israel’s rabbis must express their views without fearing that some may not like it. The people of Israel’s power is its spiritual basis.” Ah, yes; it’s okay to argue for racism and genocide when you have the Torah to back you up!

At the same demonstration Knesset member Katz warned that the settlers were strong and multiplying, and that they were a threat to the state prosecutor and his secular allies. He said that one day the settlers would run the state, at which point they would find out who besmirched the good names of their rabbis and take revenge. And this is precisely my point: One day the settlers will run the state if their power is not curbed now, while their numbers are manageable. If Israel cannot reign in the religious right in time, they will destroy the liberal democracy that Ben Gurion built and substitute a religious tyranny that will make Iran’s look tame.

To Be Continued…