Miriam Shaviv

  • 'Bloody Jews'

    Jul 14, 2010

    This is what antisemitism in polite British society looks like today. Eve Garrard writes in Normblog:

    'Bloody Jews,' he said. 'Bloody Jews, bugger the Jews, I've no sympathy for them.'

    I gazed at him, aghast. Where had this suddenly come from?

    The encounter I'm here describing took place very recently, in the course of a large academic dinner at a University in another city, not my own one. It was a pleasant occasion, and the people at my table were innocuously and comfortably talking about sociological issues connected with the economic crisis, all completely harmless and (relatively) uncontentious. And then I heard the academic on my right hand side say to the person opposite him, 'Bloody Jews.'

    When he saw my appalled stare, he said impatiently, 'Oh well, I'm sorry, but really...!'

    'I'm glad you're sorry,' I replied politely, collecting myself together for a fight. But then he asked, 'Are you Jewish?' When I nodded, this academic - whom I'd met for the first time that day - put his arm around me and said, 'I'm sorry, but really Israel is terrible, the massacres, Plan Dalet, the ethnic cleansing, they're like the Nazis, they're the same as the Nazis...'

    The encircling arm was offensive enough in its own right, but the Nazi reference was conclusive - it's so manifestly false, and when addressed to a Jew, it's designed to wound; no one makes that equivalence without malicious prejudice. And this, after all, was an academic talking, a professor, someone trained to resist casual stereotypes and easy equivalences. I wish I could say that I delivered on the spot a furious and crushing analysis of his various misdemeanours. However, because of the special circumstances surrounding this particular academic occasion, if I'd done that it would have caused distress to other people who were present, towards whom I felt nothing but good will, and who have shown me nothing but warmth and kindness. I thought - perhaps wrongly - that I was under an obligation to be restrained. (Somehow, there always seem to be reasons for not telling anti-Semites just what they are.) So all I did was say loudly, 'I don't have to put up with this crap,' and took myself off to join another table.

    What did he expect, I wonder? Breathless deference, perhaps: 'Oh yes, I do agree, Israel is terrible; it doesn't speak in my name, no, no, not in the least, not at all; it's an imperialist colonialist fascistic genocidal apartheid settler state, how right you are to be disgusted at it.' Whatever he expected, I don't think it can have been such opposition as I offered him, tame though this was, since others told me that he shortly became full of remorse, and went around apologising alcoholically to those who were present at our interchange. They, of course, were paralysed with a very English embarrassment at the spectacle of someone dropping a social clanger. I was later informed that one (Muslim) academic told the professor that he should apologise to me, a suggestion which he rejected, saying that he never apologised to 'one of them'. Apart from that, the matter was allowed to drop.

    I don't think this would have happened 10 years ago. There certainly was anti-Semitism (of a relatively mild kind) around the place, among academics as elsewhere, but they used to know that there was something wrong with it, and hence restrained themselves, at least in public. I haven't met anything quite as nakedly direct as this in the universities before now, not even in the UCU during the boycott debates: venomous though those debates were, the fig-leaf of anti-Zionism was usually kept more or less in place. Mark Gardner's wry and melancholy comments on the constant drip of criticism of Israel and Jews, the rising waters of this toxic hatred, seem especially resonant to me today.

    As I look over what I've written about this encounter, it sounds oddly unreal, even contrived - it reads like an episode in a badly-written novel. But it did happen, a few days ago, here in the UK, exactly as I've described it. (As so often, life seems to imitate second-rate art). The incident wasn't in itself very important - the professor had liquor taken, and perhaps was having a Mel Gibson moment, so to speak. But he wasn't called out on it; no one - not even me - decided that the public expression of hatred towards Jews had to be publicly combated, even at the cost of some social discord. I'm very unsure that my restrained response was the right one, even in the special circumstances which obtained at the time.

    People like Ken Livingstone keep telling us that criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitic, and that those who play the anti-Semitism card (as they see it) are just trying to distract attention from Israel's crimes. The Guardian reviewer Nicholas Lezard seems to think something like this too; as does Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green party; the UCU leadership has also peddled this line on more than one occasion. Attacks on Israel are nothing to do with anti-Semitism, they say; it's just honest political critique.

    'Israel... massacres... Nazis... bloody Jews. Bloody Jews.'

    Personally I think she is being too kind by giving this professor the gift of anonymity. Professors are public figures, and he made his comments in a room full of witnesses. Who is he?

  • Chief Rabbi Sacks boasts about Limmud

    Jul 13, 2010

    Our Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has given an interview to Big Think, an American website. Because it is meant for an American and general audience, the questions are rather basic. Strangely enough, though, the result is at least one fascinating answer:

    Question: What did you set out to accomplish as Chief Rabbi?

    Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I wanted to turn a rather staid and quite predictable Jewish community, not very creative one, into a much more effervescent community and I think the community really has been transformed.   We do things in Anglo Jewry today that are not done anywhere else in the world or if stimulated developments elsewhere in the world, we have something called Limmud where almost 3,000 young people come together to study for a week at the end of the year, studying 600 different courses.  Now Limmud has been exported to 47 other places in the world from Moscow to New York and Los Angeles and almost everywhere else, so we have a very vibrant cultural life, which we didn’t have before.... [Continued here - MS.] 

    Is the Chief Rabbi really taking credit for Limmud, a conference he has conspicuously avoided as chief rabbi and which most of his rabbis are still afraid to visit for fear they will be deemed 'radicals' (G-d forbid)? It sure sounds like it.

    (Also of interest: his very first answer, in which he talks of the chief rabbinate in terms of 30-year cycles. Are rumours of his imminent retirement exaggerated?)

  • Transgender dating in the Orthodox world

    Jul 13, 2010

    The NYT "Ethicist" column gets a Jewish dating question:

    I am a straight woman, and I was set up on a date with a man. We got along well initially, but I grew concerned about how evasive he was about his past. I did some sophisticated checking online — I do research professionally — and discovered that he is a female-to-male transgender ed individual. I then ended our relationship. He and I live in Orthodox Jewish communities.  (I believe he converted shortly after he became a man.) I think he continues to date women within our group. Should I urge our rabbi to out this person? NAME WITHHELD, N.Y.

    The Ethicist answers that the date should have revealed his sex-change history very early on, but that the woman has no right to ask the rabbi to 'out' him publicly (though she can discuss it with friends). All of which seems right. I do think, however, that she should find out whether the person who set them up knew beforehand. If they did, she might have an issue there; and if they didn't, they are entitled - more than that, have a responsibility - to know before they set him up with anyone else.

    What do you think?

  • UK fails the Israel test

    Jul 9, 2010

    A few days back, after it emerged that Russian spies had been using fake UK passports, I posed an Israel test: Will the UK launch an investigation and expel a Russian diplomat, as they did when they accused Israel of forging UK passports following the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai? Or do different rules apply to Israel and to Moscow?

    Well, here's an enormous surprise. Courtesy of the Wall St Journal:

    At this stage during the Dubai affair in mid-February, the Labour government had already summoned the Israeli ambassador and announced criminal investigations amid furious statements from all political parties. It expelled another Israeli diplomat a month later. The Guardian newspaper ran some 17 articles highlighting the passport accusations.

    By contrast, a week into the Russian forgery story, there is not a hint of a diplomatic row between London and Moscow. The Guardian mentioned the fake passport allegations in two articles that lacked the breathless condemnation directed at Israel. The paper's editorial on the Russian spy-ring ignores the passport angle altogether.

    Why the double standard? One possible explanation is that Israel is a friend and ally of Britain, and friends aren't supposed to behave that way. Then again, Downing Street also claims good relations with the Kremlin. Or perhaps the difference has to do with the recent change of government. Yet Britain's new chief diplomat, William Hague, when still shadow foreign secretary, encouraged Labour's diplomatic arm-twisting of Israel, a point he was eager to repeat in an interview last month with Al Jazeera, no less.

    It's hard to escape the conclusion that what really infuriated the British was not so much the alleged offense but the identity of its perpetrators.

  • Why rabbis lose faith

    Jul 9, 2010

    The Orthoprax rabbi has, of course, provoked a great deal of discussion on the blogosphere - most (but not all) hostile. One of the more thoughtful responses I've seen comes from The Rebbetzin's Husband, a former pulpit rabbi now in Toronto, who says: "There are few professions which are worse for one’s belief in G-d and Judaism than the rabbinate."

    He explains:

    • A rabbi who really engages a community lives his life under theological siege, constantly facing people’s questions and challenges against faith. It’s like water sitting on a roof; eventually, some will seep in;

    • A rabbi sees all sorts of tragedy and pain, and no one comes along to reassure him as he reassures others;

    • A rabbi has no time for emotional bounceback, let alone philosophical bounceback, from the pain he sees;

    • A rabbi lacks the space to step back and work through his theological challenges; he gets no religious Time Out. Whether they are right or wrong, other people can and do drop out of minyan or shiur for a few days, but the rabbi has no such option;

    • A rabbi normally devotes little time to read works of hashkafah that might reinforce his belief; all of his time goes into the community. Reading it in order to teach it doesn’t count!;

    • A rabbi sees the weak reasons behind some people's belief;

    • A rabbi sees how some people turn to Judaism not out of strength, but out of absence of anywhere else to turn;

    • A rabbi sees the professed believers who act immorally and corruptly, and knows what others get away with.

    Of-course, it remains completely unclear how many rabbis really do suffer from profound crises of faith - any evidence is anecdotal, and we don't even have much of that. However, if you accept The Rebbetzin's Husband's basic premise, he has left out two factors I am sure must be significant.

    First, knowledge. Clearly, rabbis are highly educated Jewishly, and therefore more aware of and more exposed than others to the contradictions and holes inherent in religious texts and thought. Obviously, they are also better equipped than others to deal with and bridge them, but for some, ultimately, the doubts may prevail.

    Second, they will know far more than many others about the politicisation of organised religious life - the practical / sectarian considerations which drive some "religious" decisions, the hypocrisy of some major "religious" figures, the real influence of busybodies on religious decision-makers, etc etc etc. I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of thing drove some rabbis to doubt the entire framework.

  • Shtetl myths

    Jul 8, 2010

    A new book by Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis, and Education, shatters some myths about life in 19th century eastern Europe:

    To name a few: early marriages were not the norm but took place only among the elite, and then only during a relatively brief period; the traditional family was far less patriarchal than we think, with women exercising real power albeit in the absence of formal authority; women were also far more literate than we think, often more so than men; the Jewish elderly tended to live on their own, not in the midst of family; the Gaon of Vilna was indeed a genius, but not recognized as such in his lifetime. 

    I find the myths to do with women's status and family structure particularly interesting, as there are similar misunderstandings about women and family in medieval times. Then, too, women were far more powerful - economically, in the family, in terms of Jewish ritual - than we tend to imagine, throwing the idea of "traditional" women's roles completely out the window.

  • Israel finance minister: Lose control and we'll end up like Britain

    Jul 8, 2010

    Remember the time when Israel was the economic basket case and Britain was rich? Well, those times are long gone.

    Now it is Israel which looks on Britain with horror. As the Israeli finance minister Yuval Steinitz warned yesterday,

    "If we go wild and lose control we might end up like Britain or Spain, not to mention Greece - in another two years."

    Explains a bit about the recent spike in British aliyah figures, doesn't it?

    (h/t Dani)



  • 'My Palestinian cousins'

    Jul 6, 2010

    I've written before about Israelis with Palestinian cousins - literal Palestinian cousins. If your Hebrew is up to it, you must read this interview with filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai, who made a documentary last year about her relatives in a Palestinian refugee camp.

    In her case, a 14-year-old relative called Pnina disappeared from her home near Tiveriah in the 1940s. More than 25 years later, following the Six-Day War, Pnina wrote to her family, telling them that she lived on the West Bank with her Arab husband and eight children. There was some contact between the families, but that came to an and after Pnina's death four years later.

    Now, Noa Ben Hagai has got back in touch with the family in the West Bank (some of Pnina's children, though, live in Gaza, Kuwait and Jordan) and made a movie about the family's strained relationship. You can watch a fascinating preview here with English subtitles, which brings out the relatives' complex feelings.

    In the very candid Maariv interview, Ben Hagai says that some of the Palestinian relatives have joined Hamas and others have spent time in Israeli jails. They suffered because they had a Jewish mother and so, in order to prove that they were not collaboraters, went to the other extreme.

    She is frank about the fact that the Israeli side of the family feels awkward because the Palestinian side is constantly asking them for financial aid. At first they did try to help, even posting bail for one of the cousins a couple of times after he was arrested for infiltrating into Israel (they also tried to organise work permits in Israel for their Palestinian relatives) but ultimately the relationship is unbalanced and this creates a strain.

    "Their expectations from us are very high. They expect lots of things - help with food, financial aid for operations and permits to work in Israel. The connection is very complicated - we are considered the occupiers on one hand, and the rich uncles on the other. They have some kind of expectation that we will save them from their lives."

    There is, she says, no happy ending, and her own left-wing hopes of peace have suffered somewhat through this personal journey.

    Read the whole thing here if you can.  And a final thought - Pnina's children and some of her grandchildren, in the Palestinian refugee camp, Gaza, Kuwait and Jordan, are halachic Jews. How many other families have representatives on both sides of the divide? More than one might think, I suspect.

  • Syrian military hit by the plague?

    Jul 5, 2010

    This report may be based on a questionable translation, come from a suspect source and remain rather vague, but never mind - it has a rather strong biblical resonance:

    According to the Syrian opposition in exile, the Syrian president, who is visiting Latin America, has ordered the shutdown of all Syrian 
    military exercises due to a plague that currently affects a large  number of military, especially conscripts doing their training.  Drinking water and food in the bases and the current heat wave are the  cause of the epidemic.

    Touched by a terrible drought, this epidemic (which reminds us of the Middle Ages) could cause extensive damage to elements of the Syrian 
    army in the coming weeks. Military sources have completely rejected the possibility of outside intervention that could be causing the  epidemic.

    Syria is currently facing the worst drought in 40 years. Hundreds of  thousands of people are experiencing food shortages; peasants have  been decimated, and many people are fleeing the country. Already,  nearly 60 000 small livestock owners have lost all their animals, and  50 000 others have lost 50-60 percent of their cattle.

    If the early symptoms of plague have occurred in the military (the  Syrian army has 215 000 men, plus 300 000 reservists), it is probable  that the soldiers will spread the disease, especially with the  approach of Ramadan [11 Aug-9 Sep 2010] when a great number of  soldiers return to their villages.

    The last plague epidemic in Europe was in 1910.

    Probably just food poisoning.....

  • Do Israelis really want peace?

    Jul 1, 2010

    A very silly piece by Larry Derfner in the Jerusalem Post, arguing that Israelis don't really want peace. Not, you understand, that he disagrees that most Israelis are willing to give up land for peace, or accept a two-state-solution. His complaint is that Israelis are unwilling to throw their arms open, embrace the Palestinians and sing kumbaya:

    ...I hear this country’s mouthpieces going on about how Israelis, starting with the prime minister, are ready to accept a Palestinian state, how poll after poll shows that two-thirds of the Jewish population is in favor of trading land for peace.

    The implication of this hasbara is that Israelis have become so liberal, so dovish, so open-minded about the Arabs. Oh no we haven’t. In 25 years, I have never seen this country so blindly contemptuous of everybody and everything Arab, so drawn to confrontation, so intractably closed-minded. Israelis haven’t come around to the idea of a Palestinian state because they
    realize the Palestinians have rights, too, or because they think there’s something immoral about the occupation and the settlements.

    Today, if Israelis thought they could get away with expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and the Israeli Arabs from Israel, they’d support it. But they know they can’t, so they want to put as much distance and as high a wall between them and the Arabs as they can.

    If this is your idea of peace, then the cliché “all Israelis want peace” is true.

    First, the implication of the polls is emphatically not that Israelis are so "liberal... so open-minded about the Arabs". That is Mr Derfner's interpretation alone. The polls show nothing more than that Israelis are willing to do what it takes to give the Palestinians a state. Anything else is conjecture, so he is destroying a straw man.

    Second, Mr Derfner shows himself to be completely ignorant about human psychology. Which people, faced with years of conflict and bloodshed and hostility and wars, could really be expected to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the other side - as Mr Derfner seems to expect? I wouldn't think Israelis feel like that about the Palestinians, and I wouldn't think the Palestinians feel like that about the Israelis. They can't. The only way they could feel what Mr Derfner thinks they should is to shove to one side their experiences and reality and buy into some idealistic fantasy about the other side. Most people -- extreme leftists like Mr Derfner clearly being the exception -- don't work that way.

    Third, positive feelings about the other side in the conflict are not a prerequisite to a settlement. They are the result, and probably follow only many years later, when the two peoples have been seperated completely and utterly and everyone has had time, a lot of time, to forgive and forget. If you are going to wait for a romance to bloom before we go ahead with this divorce, you are going to be waiting a long time.

    Last but not least, I disagree with Derfner that most Israelis want to reach a settlement because they somehow "hate" Arabs. Obviously, some do. But most Israelis are, first of all, being pragmatic. They understand that the best thing for both peoples is to seperated right now (they just wish they could convince the Palestinians of the same thing, as I wrote in my column this week).  They are also tired and frustrated and just want a normal, quiet life.

    Moreover, I believe that a lot of Israeli antagonism to the Palestinians, as it exists, is shallow. The fact is that unlike the Palestinians, who seem to have a problem with the very idea of Israel and Israelis, most Israelis do accept that the Palestinians are here to stay, and will have their own state. The hostility comes because they see the Palestinians want to hurt them. When they see otherwise - that the Palestinians are genuinely interested in building their own state, not destroying the Jewish one - the negative feelings of many, if not most, will go away.

    I cannot help but remember how Israelis regularly visited the Arab towns and villages in the West Bank before the first intifada, and how quickly they returned during that brief period in the 1990s when it seemed that peace was on its way. It may take a very long time - see again my column this week - but if there is ever a settlement, i hope it could happen again.