Miriam Shaviv

  • How (not) to explain an eruv

    Aug 26, 2010

    The BBC is reporting on the planning application for an eruv in Bury, Manchester, prompting one friend of mine to ponder on Facebook why this might be of national interest.

    As I recall, the Golders Green, Edgware and Borehamwood eruvim certainly sparked national interest when they were first announced (and, for GG and Edgware, put up), and perhaps the August silly season has prompted the BBC to revisit the topic yet again (in fact, they have missed a good angle about how, in the space of just a few years, eruvs have become completely normal in England, with planning applications moving along for almost every 'Jewish' neighbourhood in London, despite wrangling and resistance both internal and external).

    What interests me, though, is the explanation given by Rabbi Guttentag for the eruv at the bottom of the short piece:

    Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag said that the eruv would enable Jewish people to push their children and disabled relatives to the synagogue on the Sabbath and to live with "less restriction and difficulty".

    He said: "The rules are that I'm allowed to carry in my own house and own garden with walls and a fence around it and therefore if we can designate an area out in the street that likewise has a devoted boundary around it, then that too is a house in a larger sense - and a private domain.

    "It's not bending the rules, it's merely an understanding of them and an application of them."

    This is, of course, the explanation always given - and, as far as I am concerned, one of the reasons that so many of our eruvs have encountered opposition. Accurate as the explanation may be, it makes Jews sound like crazy people, who discriminate against disabled people and their own children, are rule/law-obsessed (one of the traditional Christian complaints about Jews) - and the law we are talking about must sound very bizarre to those not familiar with Jewish traditions, as well. (I recall in particular talking to some random woman on the train about the GG eruv - long story - and having her ask me whether the eruv was something 'only Jews could see'.)

    A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak on television about the Borehamwood eruv, and consulted widely about how to explain it in terms that anyone could understand. Finally I decided to explain that it was a form of 'parish boundary'. It may not be completely accurate, but it makes sense to the wider community and I think diffuses many of the objections the more legalistic explanation is bound to raise.

    I hope that as the Manchester eruv progresses, those in charge of getting it approved adopt some kind of similar explanation, because in London, the public relations battle has been a difficult hurdle - partially, I think, because of our inability to explain in layman's terms what it actually is.

    UPDATE: This is how the eruv was explained in Sydney, Australia - as a 'fence' and 'private area'.

  • Most bizarre chuppah?

    Aug 24, 2010

    The LA Times is running an amusing/horrifying story on the wild extravagance of Persian weddings in California, with many of the examples coming from the Jewish Persian community, which has a significant presence in Los Angeles.

    I particularly liked the following detail:

    Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz... recently attended a wedding in Las Vegas with 900 guests. At another wedding, he was shocked to find spinning helicopter-like propellers over the chuppa, a traditionally plain structure under which vows are exchanged.

    Surely there are easier ways to keep the bride cool? Haven't they heard of airconditioning?

  • Some Lady

    Aug 23, 2010

    While VS Naipaul is engrossed in a row over his portrayal of Africa, his wife's comments on Jews have gone unnoticed.

    In the Times Magazine on Saturday (sorry no link - it's behind a paywall), Lady Naipaul casually comments:

    "What have they done for him here [in the UK]?... He gets the Nobel and there's not even a letter from Downing Street. You have to  be a Jew, Alan Yentob or something, to get up there. It was the Indians who celebrated...."

    Worst of all, the interviewer, the highly talented Sathnam Sanghera, doesn't even call her on it. Apparently those kinds of comments aren't even noteworthy any more.

    UPDATE: Sathnam Sanghera replies, via Twitter:

    you're right, I should have called her up on it. but it came as I was literally getting out of the car to catch train.

    plus it came after 2 hours of not dissimilar comments directed variously at Africa, the English and Indians

  • That's it, folks....

    Jul 30, 2010

    I'm off to the Holy Land for the next three weeks and won't be blogging. See you back here on the week of August 23rd.
    Enjoy your summer!

  • On Jewish racism

    Jul 29, 2010

    A reader emails me, regarding Christina Patterson's piece:

     I agree about the jump from bad driving etc to Muslim circumcision... but isn't there something in that article for Stamford Hill to reflect on??????

    Well, now that 24 hours have passed and we have all calmed down (?), let's consider that question.

    As I wrote in my blog post yesterday, there is no question that many of the things Ms Patterson complained about concerning the rude behaviour of the Charedim in SH towards her probably did happen, or could have happened. The truth is that she would not be the first to complain about bad driving and parking, terseness in shops etc. Unfortunately, the conclusions she drew from these incidents were so wild and her general tone so hateful and, frankly, hysterical, that it made it impossible, for me anyway, to actually address this one valid point. So much of what she said seemed to reflect on her rather than on the people she was writing about.

    But now, Damian Thompson, editor of the Telegraph blogs, who has many times written in support of Israel and Jewish issues, has picked up on this, and written a post about Jewish attitudes to Christians. While his point is surely equally provocative, his tone is entirely different.

    Please read the whole thing, but here is the crux:

    Stephen Pollard, the brilliant editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described [Patterson's piece] as “pure, unrelenting unadulterated anti-Jewish bigotry,” on the part of Ms Patterson and indeed some of its undertones are disturbing. But monosyllabic terseness towards goyim? I’ve experienced it, and it’s maddening. Let me recommend a gripping book called Postville by the secular Jewish journalist Stephen Bloom, who records the extreme bad manners of Lubavitch Jews who moved en masse to a town in rural Iowa to run a huge kosher butchery. In the end, angry Christian townspeople, who had initially been welcoming, voted to annexe the land on which the factory was built, so they could tax and regulate it. Bloom, who felt the Lubavitchers had displayed “despicable” attitudes verging on racism, supported the move.

    Jewish hostility towards Christians isn’t confined to the ultra-Orthodox. A woman friend of mine tutored the daughter of a Jewish couple in north London. When she said she wanted to take a break for Christmas, the wife went bananas. “We do not allow that word to be spoken in this house,” she said. An unrepresentative incident, no doubt; but my friend’s attitude towards Judaism changed after it took place. And I could tell other stories, of unbelievable haughtiness by the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, which would have led to diplomatic incidents if the Christians involved weren’t afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism.

    Mr Thompson, you are welcome to email me privately....

    I suppose I’m afraid of that, too, which is why I’m going to point out the following. This blog has often highlighted the alarming growth of Islamic anti-Jewish rhetoric, much of it flavoured by the propaganda of the Third Reich. I’ve drawn attention to the case of Baroness Tonge, the appalling Lib Dem peer who has called for an inquiry into allegations of Jewish organ-harvesting (and who still takes the party whip). I warned in advance that the Vatican was doing a stupid thing by lifting the excommunication of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX.

    But until now I’ve never written a word about Jewish prejudice against Christians, even though I’ve seen it at close hand, at a series of Jewish-run conferences I attended in America in the 1990s at which evangelical Christian believers were stereotyped as fanatics who needed only the right demagogue to turn them into murderous anti-Semites. If the conferences were being held now, I suspect most of the flak would be taken by Catholics.

    Let's not beat around the bush here. Painful as it is to admit, there is some truth to what Mr Thompson says. There are some Jews, and some parts of the community, which do look down on "the goyim", and express this in words and sometimes in action. There are elements in this community (and I'm not singling out any one in particular - as Mr Thompson says, this is not restricted to strictly Orthodox Jews) who do have a "non-Jewish problem" and see themselves as somehow superior.  I'm not only talking about Christians. Anti-Muslim racism is even more rife.

    Most of this is historical. For most of the last 2,000 years, Jews were victims of discrimination, explusions and pogroms, and had good reason to fear and despise the Christians amongst whom they lived. It takes a lot to erase two millenia of antagonism. When it comes to Muslims, there is nowhere near the historical enmity, but Muslim attitudes to the state of Israel, and modern Muslim antisemitism, have scared Jews.

    There are also theological factors - as well as the idea of "chosenness" (which too many Jews, in common with so many antisemites, misunderstand as meaning superior, while it really only means chosen to spread monotheism) - and, as my colleague Simon Rocker points out, an ongoing fear of Christian missionaries. Some of the prejudice also arises through a lack of familiarity. If you don't know or work with non-Jews, it is easier to regard them as 'different'.

    In Israel, where most Jews have never come across a Christian; where the country is engaged in a battle for survival with its Muslim neighbours; and where Jews are actually a majority and have power, many of these problems are magnified.

    I think it is important to point out that while the other forms of prejudice Mr Thompson points to (Christian anti-Semitism, Muslim anti-Semitism, Christian Islamophobia, Muslim persecution of Christians) have, historically, routinely resulted in terrible violence, Jewish anti-Christian prejudice rarely has. Perhaps this is because the Jews have, until Israel, not been in positions of power, but nevertheless, people being rude in shops is hardly on par with burning down mosques, shuls and churches, crusades, physical antisemitic assaults etc.

    Still, there is today no excuse for Jews holding racist attitudes. We spend a lot of time complaining about antisemitism and it is only fair that we make sure we are free of racism as well. We need to make sure we all understand that the odd comment about "the goyim" is not just a joke; that there are consequences to treating non-Jews as if they are inferior; and show no tolerance of these things when the emanate from our own community. Not only are these attitudes inherently wrong, they are a massive chillul hashem and result in long-term damage to our relations with our neighbours. Mr Thompson's blog (and, I'm afraid, Ms Patterson's piece too) should be a sobering wake-up call as to how we are, too often, perceived, including by our friends.

  • The limits of multi-culturalism

    Jul 28, 2010

    I have just finished reading one of the ugliest, most vile pieces ever published in the British press. It is actually dripping with venom.

    I am speaking, of course, of Christina Patterson's piece in the Indy today, The Limits of Multi-Culturalism. Her piece begins as a mild rant against her annoying and rude neighbours in the Charedi neighbourhood of Stamford Hill. They drive while using their mobile phones; park in the wrong spots, don't say please or thank you in their shops and occasionally disdain their non-Jewish customers.

    Fine. I daresay all these things really happened to her. Certainly they are all complaints that have aired so often they have become cliches.

    But that's only the first couple of paragraphs. After she gets her complaints about the "armies of children" and the "funny suits and hats" out of the way, she really gets going:

    When I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn't realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention. I didn't realise that a purchase by a goy was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn't been chosen by God. And while none of this is a source of anything much more than irritation, when I see an eight-year-old boy recoiling from a normal-looking woman (because, presumably, he has been taught that she is dirty or dangerous, or, heaven forbid, dripping with menstrual blood) it makes me sad.

    "Normal-looking woman"? What's that? A woman who looks like you, Ms Patterson?

    She then goes on about a series of Muslim practices that similarly make her "sad" - including little girls "being taught that their tiny bodies, and their lovely hair, are things to be protected from the male gaze". The very concept of modesty - in clothing, in contact between the sexes - actually offends her. I'd love to hear what she has to say, by contrast, on the armies of young girls in London sleeping around, drinking and minimally dressed. That's what offends me.

    All these things make me sad, but I accept that people should, except in certain professional situations which involve dealing with the public, be allowed to wear whatever they like, and that laws which prevent this are self-defeating, and that you can't stop parents, or rabbis, teaching little boys that adult women shouldn't even be brushed against on a bus, and I accept that some of these things are an inevitable consequence of a modern, and in many ways magnificent, multi-cultural society.

    Again, she seems to think that she is the 'normal', normative one, and that the rabbis preaching modesty are the 'modern' ones. She fails to grasp that in the context of history, she's the modern, new one, not them.

    I love, by the way, she pays lip service to the "in many ways magnificent" multi-cultural society.  In her political milieu, she has to profess to believe in it, but at the end of the day, she's not exactly live-and-let-live, is she? You rather get the feeling that she (a) hates the Jews and Muslims really, seriously more than is strictly necessary and (b) feels they really ought to thank her for generously giving them permission to exist.

    G-d, this is painful, but let's go on.

    But there's one thing I will never accept. In the next few weeks, between 500 and 2,000 British schoolgirls – yes, British schoolgirls – will be sent abroad, ostensibly on holiday, and taken to the home of a woman who will, using an often dirty razor, and no anaesthetic, slice off their labia, and clitoris, and then, using sewing thread or horse-hair and an often dirty needle, stitch their vaginas closed. Sometimes, the girls faint. Sometimes, they die. But the people who do this to them (in East Africa and India and Pakistan and the Middle East) believe that it's what God wants. They believe that it promotes "cleanliness" and "chastity". Oh, and men's sexual pleasure. But not, for obvious reasons, women's.

    Female circumcision has been illegal in Britain since 1985. Since 2003, it has also been illegal to take girls out of the country to have them "cut" abroad. The maximum penalty is 14 years. So far, there have been no prosecutions. Not a single one. I don't care if evidence is difficult to get, and I don't care if parents think they're doing the right thing for their children, and I don't care if it's a "sensitive" issue. This is a total and utter disgrace. Parents are being allowed to mutilate their children, and the institutions in this country are doing sweet FA.

    There is, I'm sure, nothing in the Koran to indicate that hacking off a girl's labia is an all-round great idea, just as there's nothing in the Torah to say that Volvos should always be driven with a mobile phone in hand, and goyim should be treated with contempt.

    Wow. We started off with rude Jewish drivers and somehow, four columns later, we've got to Muslims "hacking off a girl's labia". Amazing - no one at the Indy has yet spotted that the two things really have nothing to do with each other. Except that they are both carried out by those repulsive foreigners.

    People will believe what they believe, but a civilised society will have laws to indicate what is acceptable in that society and what isn't, and it will act on those laws. A properly civilised society would also ensure that children are not subject to the crazed whims of their parents, and hived off into "faith schools" where they're taught that the world was created in seven days, or that they need special gadgets to switch on the lights on a Saturday, or that women who show their face are sluts.

    "Crazed whims of parents"? Now we get to the nub. She dislikes Islam and Judaism and sees them and their practitioners as irrational and "uncivilised". That is what this is all about, as evidenced by the next paragraph:

    A properly civilised society would accept that while lovely little C of E schools were once an excellent place for children to learn about the religion that shaped their culture, art and laws, you can't have them without having the madrassa run by the mad mullah next door, and therefore, sadly, you can't have either, but have, instead, a system of compulsory state secular education, in which children learn to get on with people from all religious backgrounds and none, and are taught about all religions, but also that the culture of the country they're living in was, for 2,000 years, largely based on one.

    Hold on - she doesn't hate all religions. C of E schools = "lovely"! Muslim and Jewish schools = bad! I understand, Ms Patterson.

    By now, of course, her tone is totally crazed - hate-filled and hateful. Even if I were reading this with the most charitable of attitudes, and wished to assume that Ms Patterson did not mean to come across as a complete bigot, this is how it reads to me. Maybe we ought to send her to visit one of those state schools where children "learn to get on with people from all religious backgrounds and none". She certainly sounds like she needs a refresher course.

  • Bad news on Cameron

    Jul 27, 2010

    There has been quite a lot of comment today excusing, or at least trying to play down, David Cameron's line on Gaza - "a prison camp". He was just telling the Turks what they want to hear; he is trying to keep the Turks onside to stop them moving any further towards Iran and Syria; he has been spending too much time with Nick Clegg.

    Sadly, judging by Cameron's comments on east Jerusalem, which he boasted about in the FT in March, I think he means it. When it comes to Israel, at least, his true colours are red.

  • Burka update

    Jul 27, 2010

    We have spoken to the Edah Charedit, who have condemned the idea of Jewish women wearing burkas in the strongest possible terms (calling it an "abomination"), and say they will be issuing a statement banning their followers from wearing it.

    Good for them.

  • Rabbis refuse to ban the burka

    Jul 27, 2010

    While the debate over banning the burka rages on in Europe, in Israel, the cult of strange Jewish women who have taken on a face-veil is slowly becoming a full-blown community.

    The Bchadrei Charedim website is now reporting that 20 families in Beit Shemesh are taking their children out of the local strictly Orthodox school, because the teachers' wives do not cover their faces. They are presumably going to open up their own institution.

    Even more worryingly, the site reports that in recent days, some of the husbands of these women have sent a letter to the Edah Charedit beth din, asking the rabbinical judges to ban the face veil (as their wives are wearing it against these husbands' wishes) - so far to no avail.

    Why is this important? Because if the court does not explicitly ban it after a request was made, it is essentially given its consent. Up until now, the Orthodox community - which in its overwhelming, overwhelming majority has opposed the adoption of the burka, which originated with one crazy woman - has been able to argue that it is a foreign practice with no history and, even more imortantly, no halachic basis.

    If the rabbis don't speak up soon, when explicitly given the opportunity, that goes out the window.

    (Via Mom in Israel)