Saturday, 21 August 2021

Afghanistan revisited: what should have happened

Much has already been said and written about the US and UK withdrawal from Afghanistan – and that country’s takeover by the Taliban.  That doesn’t mean however that we, the public, are well-informed: our journalists, pundits and politicians tend to utter the same platitudes, lazily following each other like sheep.  We’re left to row through oceans of inane phraseology, with nary an island of insight.  Yet the Afghanistan ‘story’ is full of meaning and pregnant with lessons for the future.

First things first: some of the ‘arguments’ used by politicians and political activists to justify, alleviate criticism and displace the blame are so dishonest, so blatantly hypocritical, that they should make us all gag.

Speaking in UK’s House of Commons, former British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed:

“What President Biden has done is to uphold a decision made by President Trump. It was a unilateral decision of President Trump to do a deal with the Taliban that led to this withdrawal.”

Now come oooon, Right Honourable May – who do you think you’re kidding?  As if undoing every “unilateral decision of President Trump” were not the Biden Administration’s #1 policy thrust!

No wonder that this ‘defence’ was delivered (with little conviction and a cracking voice) by a lame duck ‘former’; I bet no one else wanted that thankless job!  But even Theresa May's speech could not make the US Administration look more foolish than it already did.  Not after its top diplomats, assertive leaders and ‘intelligence’ tsars had assured us all that Taliban was utterly incapable of defeating the Afghan army.  And not after its ambassador to the ‘United’ Nations uttered the following memorable words:

“We have expressed in no uncertain terms here at the United Nations, through a very strongly-worded press statement from the Security Council, that we expect the Taliban to respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls; we have also indicated that they have to be respectful of humanitarian law…”

I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether, hit with such “strongly-worded press statement”, the Taliban leaders are currently a) cowering in fear; b) spending sleepless nights under the weight of such clearly-stated US expectations; or c) laughing their turbans off.

But, while the decision makers and their representatives covered themselves in abject ridicule, few of their critics came out smelling of roses, either.

Adjectives like ‘shameful’ and ‘chaotic’ are among the mildest used by such critics to characterise the withdrawal.  They are, no doubt, richly deserved.  Yet let us start with the more mildly worded – though no less incisive – comment posted on Twitter by Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur:

"O America. It isn't the withdrawal itself that shocks. That makes some sense. But the speed, callousness and incompetence are harder to swallow, the human desperation you leave in your wake, the way 20 years of institution-building don't seem to have built any institutions."

It’s not that I argue with the disappointment (if not sheer pain) expressed by Rettig Gur – who grew up in America.  What I question is the underlying belief that this sort of withdrawal can be performed in some idealised, dignified manner.  A belief that is desperately, ludicrously naïve.  Find me – in the entire history of warfare – one example of unilateral withdrawal executed with the proper décor!  The British abandonment of the Palestine Mandate?  The French withdrawal from Algeria, the US departure from Vietnam, the Israeli retreat from South Lebanon, their ‘disengagement’ from Gaza?  They were all done with speed, callousness and – at least in the eyes of the bystanders – with incompetence.  Were all those military and civilian leaders truly incompetent?  Hardly: like kicking the stool at a hanging, the unilateral removal of armed forces simply cannot be done ‘sensitively’ and ‘at a measured pace’, no matter how ‘competent’ the executioner or the commanders in charge.

Former British Conservative Leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith echoed Rettig Gur’s idea, albeit in a less elegiac tone and, may I say, in a more hypocritical style:

“The chaotic, ghastly departure, the way that people were falling off aircraft in their determination to get away, and the helicopters shipping people out, say terrible things about the values that we hold and those we wish to protect. This is a shame on all of us, not just America, but also the whole of NATO and here for us in this House.”

Values, Sir Iain?  Valuuuues??  Let’s be just a little bit honest, for a change: neither the US, nor the UK, nor any of the other NATO allies that sent troops to Afghanistan did so to protect ‘values’; God knows they don’t intervene militarily whenever/wherever women and girls (or indeed men and non-binary human beings) endure abysmal oppression.  No, politicians like Sir Iain sent soldiers to Afghanistan to protect their own citizens and their own countries’ interests.  And now they’re withdrawing the military, because they judge – rightly or wrongly – that it’s in their interest to do so.  Nothing necessarily wrong with that; but please: don’t give me ‘values’!

Arguably the most frequently employed expression, during that entire pointless House of Commons ‘debate’ was “the Afghan people”.  It was uttered no less than 41 times – used and abused by every single speaker.  One would think that the Taliban is a band of Martians freshly descended from an alien spaceship – not an Islamist organisation reflecting the views of a sizable minority of that people!  And I employ the term ‘minority’ with a twinge: I may be too optimistic in using it!

The almost religious solemnity with which the MPs talked about “the Afghan people” was matched only by the enormity of that lie: because there simply is no such ‘people’.  The population of Afghanistan (yes, that’s a more honest way to put it) consists of a multitude of ethnic groups, themselves divided into numerous tribes and clans.  The largest of these groups – the Pashtuns – constitute anywhere between 38% and 48% of the population; they also make up the vast majority of Taliban cadre.  Even the term ‘Taliban’ comes from the Pashtu language: it means ‘students’ – presumably not of humanities, but of Islamic doctrine in their own extreme interpretation.

The old term ‘Afghanistan’ used to mean ‘land of the Pashtuns’.  But it was ‘borrowed’ by British colonialists to describe a much larger, artificial ‘country’ – one designed to serve as stage for the ‘Great Game’ between them and Russian interests.

Ethnic map of Afghanistan (CIA, 2005)

The second-largest ethnic group (the Tajiks) are the ones that constituted the Northern Alliance – the outfit supported by the US after their 2001 invasion.

True, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance later tried – with only moderate success – to expand their influence beyond their ethnic fiefdom; but the various (and fickle) coalitions thus constituted do not change the general picture: this is an ethnic conflict – with superimposed ideological and religious issues.

While both Pashtuns and Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, the third-largest ethnic group (the Hazara) belong to the Shia branch of Islam.  Oppressed for centuries, they now constitute the ‘natural’ vehicle of influence for neighbouring Iran.  Many Hazara men were recruited to fight in Syria in the ranks of the so-called ‘pro-Iranian militias’.  That – the ayatollahs’ regime made clear to these men – was the price for their families being allowed to live in relative safety in Iran.  To each their own ‘asylum policy’, I guess!

It’s not that I ignore the ideological aspects of the conflict.  Taliban is one of the most extreme proponents of the (already extreme) Islamist ideology.  But it is the ethnic aspect that enables and enhances their thrust.  To many a Pashtun tribesman, Taliban aren’t just mujahideen, not just Muslim holy warriors; they are, primarily perhaps, defenders of the Pashtun way of life, perceived as threatened by internal and external foes.

Arguably (and rather incongruously) the one pundit who came close to understanding Afghanistan was Peter Beinart.  It seems that good ol’ Peter can actually employ reason – when he takes his mind away from his pathological antipathy for the Jewish state!  Unfortunately, even on those rare occasions, he ultimately does not allow reason to win: like the sea waves on a rocky shore, his bursts of rationality soon break upon rigid ideological walls.

At some point, Beinart comes close to delivering the one valid diagnosis for what happened in Afghanistan:

"[B]ecause the US underestimated nationalism’s power, it underestimated the Taliban, as it had once underestimated the Vietcong."

But the nationalism he sees is ‘Afghan’, rather than Pashtun: pseudo-liberals like Beinart simply cannot bring themselves to acknowledge (let alone accept) ethnic particularism – even when it stares them in the face or hits them on the head with a cudgel.

And then comes the hypocrisy – and the racism of low expectations: Beinart treats ‘Afghan nationalism’ with the mental shrug one reserves for immovable facts; even while he bashes ‘US nationalism’ as the cause of all evils.  Typical pseudo-liberal attitude: ‘Third World’ or ‘brown’ nationalism is OK, or at least it’s something we must accept as given; ‘Western’ or ‘white’ nationalism is always criminal.  This is most obvious in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: for Beinart and his ilk, Palestinian nationalism is something we must tiptoe around, if not enthusiastically support, encourage and admire; Jewish nationalism (and especially its ultimate embodiment – the Jewish state) is by definition reprehensible.

The same weird 'logic' applies to Afghanistan: even though ‘nationalism’ is to be found on both sides, it is always one side that bears the blame; one side that should know better:

"The US invaded Afghanistan both because it was blinded by its own nationalism after September 11 and because it was blind to the nationalism of the people whose country it conquered. […]

Americans must learn that people in foreign countries are just as doggedly, fervently, and even self-destructively, nationalistic as we are ourselves."

Of course, Beinart’s Taliban/Vietcong parallel is hardly original: numerous pundits compared the US debacle in Afghanistan with that older one in Vietnam.  And as hinted before, there are other similar examples.  It would be easy to conclude, therefore, that military intervention in a foreign country is always doomed to failure; that it should never even be attempted.

But those who these days (hypocritically, in hindsight, and with a political agenda) push that conclusion willfully ignore another relatively recent (and successful) intervention: that in the former Yugoslavia.

True, the NATO intervention in that Balkanic country was plagued by hiccups and blunders: some 500 civilians were inadvertently killed in aerial bombardments; tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, alongside schools and cultural monuments.  US bombs even hit China’s embassy in Belgrade, killing 3 Chinese journalists and bringing the two world powers to the brink of war.  And NATO ‘boots on the ground’ failed to prevent massacres such as the one in Srebrenica.

Yet in the big picture, that military intervention was a success (if not an unmitigated one): it ultimately was key to ending the civil war, the killing, the rapes, the massacres.  It helped deliver sustainable peace.  Just 17 years after Srebrenica, Serbia applied to join the European Union – a project signifying the end of any irredentist aspirations.

There are similarities between Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.  For starters, the latter was also inhabited by a number of ethnic groups.  Like in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the ethnic divide was exacerbated (and perhaps even born of) religious rifts.  I say ‘rifts’ advisedly: these were not just doctrinal differences, but deep resentments rooted in centuries of conflict involving Serbs (Eastern Orthodox Christians), Croats (Romano-Catholic Christians), Bosniaks and Kosova Albanians (both Muslim).

Ethnic map of Yugoslavia

Yet ‘Yugoslavia’ is at peace and moving steadily towards freedom, while Afghanistan is headed in the opposite direction.  Why?

The hint is in the question: ‘Yugoslavia’ is no more.  That artificial country split into nation states.  Tall fences make good neighbours: Western interventionists understood that fences (or borders) were needed to deliver peace and progress to the battered people of ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multi-faith’ Yugoslavia; they helped erect those fences.  In Afghanistan (as in Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.) they did the exact opposite: they allied themselves with those who – for very ignoble reasons – wanted to forcibly keep different ethnic groups ‘together,’ within the irrelevant and oppressive borders of a false state.

‘Nation building’ isn’t the same as building cars: it’s not a mass manufacturing process, but one that occurs spontaneously (when it occurs at all), over centuries.  And that’s true not just in Afghanistan and not just among ‘brown people’.  These days, one may move freely between the Nertherlands and Germany.  But, 64 years after the formation of the European Community and almost 3 decades after it morphed into a ‘Union’, the Dutch still see themselves different from the Deutsch.  For most of them, those two letters (the ‘e’ and the ‘s’) matter considerably more than the other two – the ones in ‘EU’.

Yugoslavia is no more.  Nor are Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union or the Ottoman Empire.  But Afghanistan is still there; as are (in theory at least) Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc.  They are there because foreign interests and their local allies willed it – not because the people wanted it.  And there is nothing peaceful, or liberal, or benevolent, or positive in that.  People should be allowed (nay, they should be encouraged) to live within borders that they draw themselves; within borders that reflect their ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural identities.

Human beings are not herd animals – they are social ones.  What makes human beings into mankind is the delicate balance of individualism and social behaviour, of competition and cooperation, of particularism and universalism.  Which is why extreme ethnic particularism (xenophobia, racism, hatred of ‘the Other’) are to be unreservedly condemned.  But so should be extreme universalism (which I call uniformism) of the type that attempts to iron out or subvert identity.

Nations and nation states are expressions of that fine balance.  They are the optimal vehicles for competition and cooperation.  They afford a global metastable equilibrium, a potential of relative peace vastly superior to the alternatives: tribal societies on one side, global empires on the other…

Crucially, they enable not ‘just’ peace and stability, but human development and progress: fuelled by the same two engines (cooperation and competition) and blooming in the myriad of flavours we call ‘cultures’.

Successful countries are invariably nation states: neither ‘ethnically pure’ nor ‘multicultural,’ but endowed with character; far from monochromatic, but homogeneous enough to engender the social cohesion and communal solidarity we call ‘identity’; open and tolerant, but espousing a specific cultural flavour, a unique contribution to humanity.

When the likes of Peter Beinart (or, indeed, the likes of Bernie Sanders) rant against ‘nationalism’, they also reject what I call patriotism: the ‘nationalism’ that has nothing to do with hatred of the Other and everything to do with love of one’s own; the ‘nationalism’ that produces not wars, but peaceful, creative competition; that does not destroy, but builds one-of-a-kind tiles in the colourful mosaic we call ‘mankind’.

One of the paradoxes of pseudo-liberals’ vision is that they worship diversity in theory – but seek to destroy it in practice.  There is nothing liberal in an ideology that oppresses identity.  There never was.

Peter Beinart often claims that his views are informed by ‘Jewish values’.  Perhaps they are; but, it seems to me, he owes those values to Herod, not to Hillel.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Explaining Yiddishkeit… in Arabic!

A few recent events have, once again, brought to the fore questions that have preoccupied people for (at least) the last couple of centuries: Who is a Jew? And who (or what) are the Jews?

Let me try to distil the significance of each of those events.

A kingdom of priests

A few days ago, Israel’s High Court of Justice issued a breakthrough decision: converts to Judaism, it said (even those ‘fast-tracked’ through non-Orthodox conversion processes — Reform and Conservative/Masorti) are Jews. It would seem that Jews are, therefore, a religion. After all, that’s what ‘conversion’ means — changing one’s faith. But here’s the catch: why has the High Court waded in what appears to be a religious issue, a matter for rabbis to debate? Because in Israel there are legal consequences: Jews — not Israeli citizens, but Jews wherever they come from — are covered by the provisions of the Law of Return: they are entitled almost automatically to reside in Israel and (if they so desire) to become Israeli citizens.

But what does religion have to do with the right of residence? Or with citizenship? Try explaining this to a Westerner and you’ll get — at best — a funny look. This brings me to the second recent event.

A majority of that minority…

On March 1, 2021, A BBC programme called ‘Politics Live’ asked a panel made up of four non-Jews to debate whether Jews should count as an ethnic minority. The only Jew who participated (as a guest) was outraged that the question was even asked; so were the vast majority of British Jews who heard about this ‘debate’. On the other hand, a lot of non-Jews (including the programme’s hapless editor Rob Burley) found the whole notion baffling. After all, the Jews (in their minds, at least) are white-skinned; their eyes are straight in their faces — and not slanted like those of Asians. How, then, can they possibly be ‘an ethnic minority’? And, even assuming they are a separate ethnicity, despite their similarity to white Brits in all but hard-to-perceive details, how come one can ‘convert’ to being a Jew at the say-so of a religious conclave? Can one ‘convert’ to being black, brown or Asian?


Sociopathic Political Sociology 

Bristol University's Prof. David Miller

Only a few days earlier, a Bristol University professor of Political Sociology had produced a rant against the Uni’s Jewish Society, accusing them of being “political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing”. A.k.a. Israel — ‘the Jewish state’. This outraged those students, along with the vast majority of British Jews. Who — yes — are ‘British’, but also ‘Jews’; yes, their country is Britain, to which they are eminently loyal, though most of them are really fond of ‘the Jewish state’. Confusing? Wait, that’s not all!

Come, curse me Jacob…

A Jewish comedian of national fame (and by ‘national’ I mean in Britain, but mostly among British Jews) just published a book complaining about anti-Jewish racism — including those who claim that they don’t mind Jews, they only really hate the Jewish state. Well, to make things slightly clearer, the Jewish comedian solemnly declared in his book that he doesn’t give a rat’s about the Jewish state!  He even echoed some of those he had just complained about — by cursing ‘Fuck Israel!’  Which in itself drew the ire of those British Jews — the vast majority, according to opinion polls — who care a lot about the Jewish state; to the point of seeing it as an essential pillar of their Jewish identity…

David Baddiel

Their own country

I’m talking about recent events — but in truth this isn’t new: the Torah talks about ‘Am Yisrael’ — the People of Israel. A ‘people’ then, an ethnicity. Yes, but woe unto the People of Israel if it were to worship other Gods… So a religion, after all?

Around 1650, a certain Manasseh ben Israel was writing honey-tongued letters to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, pleading for him to remove the interdiction and allow Jews to once again live on the Island of Britain. A Sephardi Jew, Manasseh was born Manoel Dias Soeiro, scion to a family of ‘Marranos’ (Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity, but secretly continued to cling to Judaism). Having fled their native Portugal to escape the Inquisition, the family found refuge in Amsterdam, in the Low Countries, where they could, at the time, overtly practice their religion and attempt to help other exiled Jews.  Yet when Manasseh — appealing to Cromwell’s humane feelings — described Jews as ‘banished from their own country’, he made it clear that he did not mean Portugal or Spain, but the Land of Israel; the land these Jews longed for was not the one they had to leave a few years earlier, but the one they lost many centuries before Manasseh was even born…  Odd, ‘innit?  Well, there you have it — the third dimension of Jewish identity: not just peoplehood and religion, but a strange longing for a country lost some time, somewhere.

Manasseh ben Israel

But why did I drag poor ol’ Manasseh ben Israel into all this? Well, he happens to be the main architect of the ‘return’ of Jews to England, some four centuries after the 1290 exile. One could even call him the founder of the modern British Jewish community…

Trial and Error

It’s not that Jews did not experiment with their identity. In the 19th century Germany, some Jews established the Reform Movement, which initially tried to do away with ethnicity, while maintaining the element of faith. Those Jews declared themselves ‘Germans of Mosaic faith’. ‘Their own country’ was definitely Germany — and none other.

Also in the 19th century, but to the east of Germany (in Lithuania, Poland and Russia), another group of Jews established a secular Jewish movement, the Bund. The Bundists had no interest in religion, but they somehow envisaged Jewishness as a type of distinct cultural ethnicity within the socialist brotherhood of peoples.

Neither group faired very well, however. The Reform Jews may have viewed themselves and each other as ‘Germans of Mosaic faith’; but the ‘real Germans’ still viewed them as… Jews — and murdered them along with their Orthodox brethren.

As for the Bundists, they lived as socialists but died as Jews: those who escaped the Shoa’h met their bitter fate during Stalin’s purges. Only a handful survived — and at the cost of selling their souls to the devil: they became the infamous ‘Yevsektsiya’, Stalin’s tiny group of Jewish enablers.

Bundists in Poland

While the Reforms chose religion and the Bundists cultural ethnicity, they both jettisoned the third aspect — ‘their own country’. But there was another movement that started (or at least got its name and fame) in the 19th century: the Zionists. Like the Bundists, initially the Zionists had no interest in religion; unlike both Bundists and Reforms, they were only really interested in ‘their own country’. This is ironic, given that these days roughly half of that country is made up of religious or ‘traditional’ Jews, a fifth of non-Jews and the balance of Jews who preach the importance of close ties with the Diaspora. Go figure!

Traduttore, traditore: translating identity

Here’s some more Zionist irony: I believe that the most serious contribution to the understanding of these concepts (Jews, Jewishness, Jewish identity) has just been made… by an Arab.

I must admit I never before heard about Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. On Twitter, he introduces himself as

"A freedom-loving Egyptian dissident and American citizen."

Also on Twitter, on 2 March 2021, he opined:

"I’m not Jewish but I want to throw my ring in the hat of the question of Jewish identity that a lot of people are fighting about. Is it a race? A religion? An ethnicity? Can we say Arab Jew? I see a lot of people fighting without being knowledgeable or humble enough to simply say ‘Idk’ [I don’t know]. Judaism is a unique Middle Eastern structure. Modern Western languages simply don’t have the analytical tools adequate to explain it. Judaism will never comfortably map on notions expressed in the English words of ‘religion, race, civilization, etc.’ Thats my opinion."

And a very astute, insightful opinion it is, too! Languages (words, sentences, verbal descriptions) are mirrors that reflect reality; but, like any imperfect mirror, a language can also deform, rendering an inaccurate, false image. Modern Western languages developed to express contemporary Western concepts, attitudes and realities; why do we expect them to accurately describe centuries-old Middle Eastern idiosyncrasies?

Even within that broad family of ‘Western’ (i.e. European) languages, there are significant differences. Most native speakers of the English language would understand the term ‘nationality’ as meaning something similar to ‘citizenship’. French speakers would probably feel the same about the term ‘nationalité’. But, for instance, in Russian (and other Eastern European languages), ‘natsionalnost’ (национальность) should really be translated ‘ethnicity’. It is fundamentally different from the concept of ‘citizenship’ — in Russian ‘grazhdanstvo’ (гражданство). Asked what his ‘natsionalnost’ is (and assuming s/he wanted to respond candidly), a Jew living in Russia would respond ‘Jewish’, rather than ‘Russian’. S/he would of course say that his/her ‘grazhdanstvo’ is ‘Russian’. The former refers to ‘tribal’ identity; the latter — to legal status.

Although in recent times the German concepts of ‘Nationalität’ and ‘Staatsbürgerschaft’ (citizenship) have often been used interchangeably, as their equivalents are in English or French, many native German speakers would perceive a difference between the two terms: the accurate English translation of the former is, I feel, ‘national origin,’ referring either to ethnicity (‘tribal’ identity) or, more often, to the country of one’s birth — irrespective of current citizenship status.

Back to English: the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are vague and not very well understood – as the above-mentioned BBC programme abundantly demonstrated.

Such terms change meaning with the passing of time: a century ago, ‘a race’ would’ve been understood to mean a people or an ethnicity. British Jews (and Jews in general) would definitely be seen as ‘a race’; they would not be subsumed into the ‘British race’. But these days the concept of ‘race’ most often refers to predominant physical characteristics such as skin colour or the shape of one’s eyes.

Even there, things are less than crystal-clear. People who originate on the Indian subcontinent tend to have dark skin colour (but not as dark as ‘black’ people), as well as other specific physical particularities. But they are seldom referred to as a separate ‘race’ these days.

Most Westerners view Jews these days as just a (rather weird) variety of ‘white people’; not a ‘race’ onto themselves. Nonetheless, they would call antisemitism or Islamophobia ‘forms of racism’, despite the fact that neither Jews nor Muslims are seen as ‘races’. Did I manage to confuse you completely, folks? Wait, there’s more!

What about ‘ethnicity’? What does that mean, actually? Jews (who come in many shades and shapes) would often refer to themselves as an ethnicity or, just as the Torah does, as ‘a people’. But they are also part of numerous ‘nations’.

When casually asked about their identity, many (most?) British Jews would say they’re ‘British’. A few times, when discussing this with friends and acquaintances, I commented that they don’t usually say they’re ‘English’. “It’s the same,” they typically react, as an afterthought. “Sure, I’m English”. But, of course, while ‘British’ and ‘English’ may be “the same” for a member of the dominant majority, I very much doubt that a Scot or a Welsh person would see things this way!

Nor is this type of identity embraced uniformly across the Jewish world. I am told that in Sweden, for instance, a Jew who marries out is said to have ‘married a Swede,’ notwithstanding the fact that the Jew him/herself is the proud holder of a Swedish passport. I remember well a similar attitude from my youth in Eastern Europe.

That’s, by the way, not an exclusive Jewish phenomenon: an ethnic Finn born in Sweden for many generations would most often say s/he is ‘from Sweden’ — rather than ‘Swedish’; members of the ethnic Magyar (Hungarian) minorities would most often say they are ‘from Romania’ or ‘from Slovakia’, rather than ‘Romanian’ or ‘Slovak’; and Arab Israelis would often describe themselves as ‘Arabs (or Palestinians), citizens of Israel’ — rather than ‘Israelis’.

Things change as we move along the time-space continuum. Once upon a time, the West defined itself as ‘Christendom’ — a moniker that bundled together religious, territorial and cultural identity. It had a somewhat equivalent term for Jews (albeit, of course, less sympathetic in tone and usage): Jewry in English, Judentum in German. Few people use these terms anymore; fewer still understand their complex meaning.

But let’s go back to Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. I would suggest, that his own sense of identity (an Egyptian Arab, now a US citizen) is what produced his astute remarks. Arabs are (speaking as an outsider) people who belong to a broadly-defined Arab culture — some define it as a nation — one of whose main expressions is the use of the Arab language. Development of a more clearly contoured Arab identity was actively discouraged for centuries, first by the Ottoman rulers, then by Western colonialism and finally by local despots keen on keeping their fat arses on the gilded thrones of arbitrarily-delineated fiefs. Since it gained autonomy — from the Ottomans and from the Western colonial powers — earlier than other Arab countries, Egypt boasts a more mature identity. (Geography and historic legacy also helped.)

If language remains a major identifier of ‘the Arab World’, it isn’t a very straightforward one. An Egyptian like Mr. Mansour will be, most likely, a speaker of the Egyptian (Masri) dialect. Should he want to have a conversation with a Palestinian or a Syrian (i.e. a speaker of the Levantine, a.k.a. Syrian or ‘Shami’ dialect of Arabic), they might understand each other, with some difficulty — perhaps like a Spaniard attempting to talk with a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian. If, however, he wanted to speak with a Moroccan (a speaker of the N. African — Maghrebi — dialect), he may experience a degree of difficulty similar to a German trying to communicate with a non-German speaking Dutch person. Assuming they are both educated people, Mr. Mansour and his Moroccan friend should be able to communicate better by using the literary or ‘Modern Standard’ Arabic — a language they would both have learned in school. MSA is often referred to as الفصحى (Al-Fusha or Eloquent Arabic); it is much closer to Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an.

Another Arab ‘identity glue’ is religion — Islam. But that’s also far from straightforward: there are Christian Arabs, too; there are plenty of non-Arab Muslims; and, as we know, there are several different Muslim denominations.

Not to mention that Arabs live in more than 20 different countries, each having (or trying to develop) its own national identity.

My point is that Arab identity is also very complex — which may have helped Mr. Mansour grasp the intricacies of Jewish identity.

Since it originated also in the Middle East, the Arabic tongue copes much better — in comparison with European languages — with dual or multi-faceted aspects of identity. There are, for instance, at least three different ways to convey the concept of ‘nation’ or ‘national’ in Arabic:

Qawm (قوم) comes from the word for ‘mother’ (umm). It refers to a relationship of mutual solidarity (identity) between people who are not necessarily bound to a particular geographic territory. It is to a certain extent (though not exactly) what we try to convey by saying ‘ethnicity’ in English. There is even a religious connection: a related word is Ummah (الأمة) — that’s what one calls the ‘nation’ of Islam, the global collectivity of Muslims; the Islamic equivalent of ‘Christendom’, if you wish.

Watan (وطن), on the other hand, has a strong territorial meaning: it has to do with home or homeland.

And then there is balad (بلد‎), which also has a strong territorial dimension, but has to do with the place (country, area or perhaps village) a person was born in. Just to show how rich the Arabic language is, ‘balad’ is also translated in English as ‘homeland’.

So Arabs can say ‘nation’ or ‘national’ in three different ways and convey slightly different meanings, somewhat distinct, nuanced aspects of their identity. This may be particularly poignant for someone like Hussein Aboubakr Mansour: a US citizen born in Egypt. With two places that are ‘homeland’ — only in different ways — which would be ‘his own country’, I wonder? That’s, perhaps, why he gets Jews…

Among Westerners, there are at least as many anti-Arab racists as there are antisemites. But, with the exception of the far-right fringe, anti-Arab animus is much more rarely expressed in public. After all, the wokeocracy has already made up its collective, narrow mind that, ‘unlike Jews,’ Arabs are indeed an ‘ethnic minority’; they are ‘people of colour’ and therefore oppressed by definition.

So, look… it sounds counter-intuitive, I know; but perhaps what we need to do is this: let’s all petition the Beeb, so that next time those conceited, closed-minded, arrogant and Western-centric people ask what Jewishness is, they interview Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. He gets it! And, as an Arab, they’ll at least listen and feign respect for his opinion…

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Trumping common sense

On Wednesday, there was a riot on the Capitol Hill.  A violent mob broke their way inside the building, causing elected legislators to scatter and hide.

It was a shameful, disgusting event.  Sure, people are free to protest and demonstrate, though such tools are best employed by those who are not in power.  It is pathetic – to say the least – to see the US President calling for a demonstration; and it is irresponsible for him to use language that sounds like dog whistle for mischief.

There is a fundamental guarantee for our safety and freedom: the rule of law.  And the rule of law is based on one key principle: that the state has the absolute monopoly on the use of coercive force.

I can condone the use of violence (certain levels of violence, directed at certain targets, in certain limited circumstances) against tyrannical regimes opposed to the rule of law.  I recognise the right to resort to violence in legitimate defence situations, where the rule of law does not provide effective protection.  But – outside these exceptions – violence is a crime, not a form of protest.  And a crime is a crime is a crime, irrespective of who commits it – whether supporters of Donald Trump, whether activists of Antifa or ‘Extinction Rebellion’ militants.  ‘Protesting’ means carrying placards, waving flags and shouting slogans – not breaking windows and smashing furniture; and most certainly not threatening or hurting people.

What happened at the Capitol in Washington DC was a violent riot, not a ‘protest’.  And whoever incited it – let alone participated in it – committed a crime.  They should be apprehended, investigated, tried in a court of law and, if found guilty, punished in accordance with the law.  And that goes for everybody – from the President of the United States to the most humble janitor.  The rule of law is only the rule of law if applied equally to everybody.


Blind Justice

Keep cool and believe in democracy

Violence is always disgusting – even more so when committed in the name of perceived ‘justice’.  It’s even more appalling when this occurs in the very home of democracy.

But while we uphold the rule of law and decry violations thereof, we must also – to use a rather irreverential American phrase – keep our pants on.  Responding to violence with hysteria is not smart, not helpful – and often not honest, either.  We should keep things in proportion.  That’s more than the mainstream media did, on this occasion.

Writing in the Guardian, for instance, columnist Rebecca Solnit lamented:

“On Wednesday, a coup attempt was led by the president of the United States.”

A similarly hysterical tone was stricken by some politicians.  Here’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

“The violence at the Capitol today was an attempted coup and act of insurrection egged on by a corrupt President to overthrow our democracy.”

That’s ‘a bit’ of an exaggeration, I’d say.  A coup is an organised, deliberate attempt to seize power.  It typically involves military units or other security forces, who intend to take control of the centres of power in the state: the government, legislature, courts and means of communication.  An insurrection is a mass uprising.  Neither nouns accurately (or honestly) describe what happened on Capitol Hill.  Anyone viewing the footage with an open mind will see it for what it was :a riot; a mob of a few hundred people, with neither leadership nor clear intentions or purpose.  A riot which – were it not for the lax security and the unpreparedness of the police – would have ended in an hour or so, with a few minor injuries at most.

Compare Wednesday’s events with a real attempted coup – even one poorly organised and executed: in 1981, a Spanish general (and supporter of the former militarist dictator Franco) rebelled against the country’s fledgling democracy.  The rebels started by declaring a state of emergency in one of the provinces.  Tanks were brought into the streets; the radio and TV stations were taken over by rebel army detachments; and a group of 200 soldiers stormed the country’s parliament, taking about 350 MPs hostage.  The rebels eventually surrendered, but only when confronted by loyalist army units.


Coup d'etat in South Korea, 1961

On Wednesday in Washington DC, lives (perhaps even the lives of elected parliamentarians) were recklessly put at risk; but, histrionic statements notwithstanding, democracy was never in danger.  Let us remember that, more than once in the country’s history, US democracy easily survived even the assassination of a President.

In fact, if the riot (and its dismal outcome) proved anything – it demonstrated the strength of that democracy: once the violence became apparent, hardly anyone of any consequence expressed support for it; Republican governors, senators and representatives condemned it; a few members of the cabinet resigned in protest; and ultimately Trump himself called to “remain peaceful […] respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue”.

The riot deserves unreserved condemnation; but I’m afraid that those turning their eyes to the skies and decrying it as a ‘direct attack on democracy’ do so mostly out of dishonest political interest, rather than genuine concern.

While the media and a rather phoney-sounding chorus of Western leaders were focused on the annoying, but ultimately inconsequential events in Washington DC, a real and much more significant attack on democracy was taking place unhindered and largely un-condemned: the Hong Kong police conducted mass arrests of former -pro-democracy lawmakers and other political activists critical of the People’s Republic and its increasingly oppressive rule over Hong Kong.  These individuals are accused of ‘subverting state power’ and – in accordance with the latest ‘security’ legislation, may be extradited to the famously tender love and care of the government in Beijing.

Let’s get things straight, folks: the USA will remain a democracy – I promise you; as for Hong Kong…


Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

That’s not to say that all is well in USA – far from it.  What we see is a divided, polarised society.  And, contrary to what some pundits would want us to believe, this is not all Trump’s doing.  In fact, the processes that gradually led to this situation have been at work for decades.  And – like in most broken up families – both sides are equally to blame.

I am a liberal at heart.  I crave a kinder, juster society; one that encourages competition, but does not allow the powerful to ride roughshod upon the weak.  A place that offers everybody equal opportunities – though not necessarily equal outcomes.

But let me make a confession: I am 100% in favour of evolution and 0% for revolution.  Sure, we need to change things; but not every change is for the better.  That’s why the ‘progressives’ who call for change are no more and no less legitimate than the ‘conservatives’ who challenge it.  In my view, to make real, genuine progress, a society needs to balance the two impulses.  Checks and balances are essential for a democracy not just to function, but also to evolve.

Most people are political moderates.  But, increasingly, it feels like the agenda has been hijacked by the political extremes: on one side the supremacists who would take us back to a dark, best forgotten past; on the other, a wokeocracy intent on dragging us, volens-nolens, to a weird, undesirable future.

The extremes are, by definition, militant.  But we, the ponderous, mostly silent and often apathetic majority, do ourselves no favours when we get caught up in their immoderate polemic.

Let’s watch our language – it is important.  Let’s handle carefully our social fabric – lest we tear it apart.  The language of political campaigns is one thing; but we, who aren’t politicians, should disagree without delegitimising.

I watched – with concern – the riot at the Capitol.  But I experienced real heartbreak when the unthinking, sheep-like media called the rioters ‘Trump supporters’.  What a mistake!  Beyond dishonest spin, the US has had fair, free elections.  More than 74 million people have voted for Donald Trump; but how many of them broke into the Capitol?  Describing criminal offenders as ‘Trump supporters’ is delegitimising language; it generates (or entrenches and exacerbates) a sense of alienation, of being held in contempt and dismissed.  Intolerance breeds intolerance; bigotry creates more bigotry.

Contrary to the cliché, 74 million people can be wrong (so can 81 million).  But dismissing them en-masse as Neanderthals is the real threat to democracy.  Beyond a thin layer of extremists, their concerns are legitimate; their intentions untainted.  No, they do not wish to kneel on any black neck; nor do they want to be called rednecks, or ‘white nationalists’.  Let’s take colours out of our political lexicon, shall we?  Let’s be colour-blind.

Democracy works by debate and persuasion; it’s the dictatorship that uses dictates and coercion.

By all means disagree with them, if you wish; but listen with respect and empathy.  Don’t treat them with disdain: overconfidence is the mark of the stupid.

By all means persuade them, if you can; but don’t try to bully them into compliance with your own views; don’t attempt to impose your own political correctness on them – that shows weakness, not strength.

Joe Biden, congratulations: you’ve won the elections; come 20 January, you will be the new (and the only) President of the United States.  You’re even likely to have a sympathetic, relatively supportive Congress.  But you and your administration would do well to seek to understand the 74 million.  On 3 November 2020, they were still ‘Trump supporters’; on 20 January 2021, they should be nothing but fellow Americans.  Accept them and they will accept you.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

There's no vaccine against ineptitude

In April 2020, I wrote an article accusing political leaders in Europe and USA of prioritising ideology over epidemiology – of callously sacrificing lives not just to Covid-19 but, needlessly, to the Moloch of partisan dogma.

What happened since then can be adequately described with just one word: ineptitude.

On the positive side -- one societal engine did fire up: science delivered a solution – it did so assuredly, in just a few short months.  It developed vaccines, tested them on tens of thousands of people and found them to work better than anticipated.  All our esteemed leaders have to do now is make sure those vaccines are manufactured, distributed and administered with rocket speed, as befits a once-in-a-century emergency.

For once, money is no object: in the UK, each day of lockdown costs nearly £2 billion.  That’s 10% of the entire annual NHS budget, gone to the drain every goddam week!  And that’s before one factors in the long term and indirect effects of the economic slump…  Oh, and there’s also the small detail of 1,000 people currently dying of Covid every day.  So any conceivable expenditure needed to shorten the ordeal is, almost by definition, justified – not just financially, but in moral terms, too!

And yet, in more than 3 weeks of ‘vaccination drive’ (i.e., by 6 January 2021), the UK managed to give the first jab (i.e. to ‘half-vaccinate’) to a paltry 1.3 million people; that’s just 10% of what the government itself defined as the ‘top priority’ group – those over 70, people with severe clinical vulnerabilities, as well as frontline health and social care staff.  It is just 2% of the population.

On average, just over 56,000 vaccines were given every day in the UK – the world’s fifth-largest economy, boasting almost 7,000 GP surgeries, staffed by circa 45,000 doctors and 16,000 nurses. 

In Israel (the world’s 30th-largest economy, where vaccinations started a week later than in the UK), circa 1.5 million people already got the first jab.  That’s 50% of those over 60 (plus most clinically vulnerable, as well as frontline health and social care staff ) and almost 17% of the entire population.  The country’s GP surgeries are staffed by c. 5,000 doctors

The European Union is performing even more poorly: just 250,000 jabs in Germany and 150,000 in Italy – two countries with strong healthcare assets and capable pharmaceutical industry.  As for France (population 67 million), it is yet to achieve 500 jabs.  No, this is not a typo: I mean 500; not 500,000!

So what’s the problem?  Well, the problem is that… nobody seems to know what the problem is.  Our ‘leaders’ are unable or unwilling to deliver plans and time schedules – beyond ‘targets’ for mid-February and (at a stretch) March.  What’s more, the media seems utterly unable to extract or surmise such information.

The Nature Magazine blames the shortage on vaccine production capacity.  The BBC cites three hindrances:

·        “a global shortage of glass vials to package up the vaccines

·        long waits for safety checks

·        the process of ensuring there are enough vaccinators”

A “global shortage of glass vials”?  Really??  For those who don’t know, glass is manufactured starting from that very rare, precious raw material: sand.

Seriously: which of those “hindrances” came (or should have come) as a surprise?  From the beginning of this pandemic, we were told that vaccines are being developed; that they would be the ultimate key to regaining our freedom, our wellbeing, our normality.  It is in the nature of vaccines that they need to be manufactured, packaged in glass vials, tested and administered by injection.  Why, then, was additional manufacturing and testing capacity not built?  How long does it take to make and install a glass vial line?  9 months is usually enough time to bring to the world a new life; surely it should have been enough to build additional production capacity, to expand batch testing facilities; and to train an army of ‘vaccinators’ (most people who can drive a car can also be trained to administer a jab).  Surely, given the huge stakes, this could and should have been accomplished by now – irrespective of effort and expense?

As for “ensuring there are enough vaccinators”: we certainly could train Amazon delivery drivers to give jabs; but fortunately we may not have to.  Thousands of recently retired doctors and nurses have volunteered to act as vaccinators.  Unfortunately, as the BBC informs us in a surreally casual article, they were told that they cannot… unless and until they take a few refresher courses on such essential topics like ‘Conflict resolution, Level 1’, ‘Preventing radicalisation, Level 1’, ‘Equality, Diversity and Human rights, Level 1’, ‘Data security awareness, Level 1’ and ‘Fire safety, Level 1’.  Children aren’t being vaccinated – but that does not absolve the would-be vaccinators from the strict requirement to study ‘Safeguarding children, Level 2’.  Fortunately, courses like ‘Astronomy for dummies’ or ‘Advanced rocket-building’ are not required.  Yet!

If you think this takes stupidity to new records, wait – this isn’t all; it’s not even the most mind-boggling blunder.

There are, we know, two vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration – a serious, reliable institution – as well as by its EU counterpart.  I am talking about the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna products: both tested on tens of thousands of people; both exhibiting efficacies around 95%.

Granted, neither is available in sufficient quantities for the entire UK population.  But, hey: this isn’t ‘business as usual’, right?  It’s war!  So the UK government should buy, rent, steal or requisition all available vaccine production capacity it can get its hands on; it should urgently seek a licence agreement with Pfizer and/or Moderna, enabling the requisitioned facilities to manufacture those companies’ approved, efficacious products.

Instead, the government is idiotically backing and betting on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – which has so far only been approved in the UK and India.  Why only in the UK and India?  Because it’s safe, but…err… not very good.

The information on the efficacy of this vaccine has been manipulated and dressed up in pompous media articles.  So some of you, dear readers, may be confused.  Let me clarify, using published, peer reviewed scientific data: in clinical trials, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was administered to c. 12,000 individuals (a similar number received a dummy shot, a placebo).  Circa 9,000 of those 12,000 received two identical doses of vaccine, 28 days apart.  Let’s call this the I (identical) cohort.  But, due to a mistake (!!!), 2,741 individuals were given only half of the first dose, followed by the full second dose 28 days later.  Let’s call this the D (‘different’) cohort.  The vaccine efficacy in the I cohort was just 62%; in the D cohort, the efficacy was calculated (and published) as 90%.  However, this is utterly unreliable, deceptive data: the D cohort was too small and did not include enough old and vulnerable people – so in reality the ‘90%’ is just a number with no scientific relevance, published by the company merely for commercial purposes, to muddy the waters and hide an unpleasant truth: that their product is considerably poorer than those of the competitors’.  In fact, because the D cohort was so inadequate, the British and Indian regulators have only approved the I regimen, the one with 62% efficacy.

So, merely because the AstraZeneca product was ‘invented here’, the UK government will condemn most of us to receive a vaccine that is just 62% efficacious, rather than one with 94% or 95% efficacy.  This means that more of us will needlessly catch the disease – even after being vaccinated.  Some of us might be left suffering of various complications – the so-called ‘long Covid’; some of us might even unnecessarily die – we simply don’t know.

But that’s not all!  There isn’t enough production capacity for the AstraZeneca vaccine, either.  It’s only manufactured… you guessed it: in the UK and India.  So, in order to ‘spread’ the paltry inventory as thinly as possible, the government now decided to ‘invent’ a new vaccine regimen: to give the second jab up to 12 weeks after the first – triple the interval recommended by the manufacturer and assessed in the clinical trials.  Since this regimen has never been tested (not on 9,000 people, not on 2,700, not even on one individual!) it is impossible to know – beyond the level of ‘educated guess’ – what its efficacy will be.  Logically, however, it should be lower – if nothing else, because the virus will have 3 times longer to attack people in-between the two doses.

Let’s be clear here: had a doctor decided to give one individual the two doses 30 (rather than 28 ) days apart, that doctor would have been severely sanctioned.  S/he would have been suspended and may have been unable to ever practice again.  But, through a decision supported by… err… theoretical assumptions, most of us will be subjected to what amounts to a mass ‘medical’ experiment – to a vaccine regimen never tried before.

And it’s not just the government and the few not-very-successful scientists turned ‘advisers’.  The opposition, while valiantly nitpicking at details, completely ignores the big picture.  According to the BBC, Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer

“says the government needs to ensure vaccination centres and GP surgeries have better information about how much vaccine they will be given for the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs to go smoothly.”

As for the devolved administrations, they are more concerned with petty, childish manifestations of ‘autonomy’ from Westminster (the Welsh lockdown was called a ‘firebreak’, which obviously is something utterly different from the English ‘circuit breaker’!) than with ensuring the welfare of their nations.

In consequence, the most fateful decisions have never been properly scrutinised (let alone challenged) in Parliament.  As for the legal system… none of those passionate activists who were so keen to attack Brexit-related decisions ever bothered to take this one to court; proving once and for all that ideology matters to them more than the lives of their countrymen.

And then there’s the stupid, sheep-like media.  They will ask the Prime Ministers ‘harsh’ questions like ‘why did you announce the school closures only on Wednesday, when you knew about the problem on Tuesday?’  They’ll swoop like blood-thirsty vultures on some political adviser that broke lockdown rules.  But they seem idiotically oblivious to the things that really matter.

Yes, I blame the government.  But no, it’s not just the executive.  What we are experiencing is a complete failure of the British political system – lock, stock and gossipy tabloids.

But… let us face it: We The People are also to blame.  No, I’m not calling anyone to ‘take the Westminster’; but we should be protesting – peacefully but determinedly – and demanding a reckoning.  If we don’t do that, then we deserve what we’ll be getting: a shoddy vaccination programme – delivered slowly, ineptly and expensively by a subpar ‘leadership’.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

I’m NOT a ‘Reform Jew’

To some of my friends, this may sound strange.  After all, I am a paid-up member of a Reform shul.  Before moving to London, I’ve even been on the Executive Committee of a Reform Jewish community.  But, no, I am not a Reform Jew – I’m just a Jew.  A member of the Jewish people and a practiser of Judaism (albeit not a very observant one).  For reasons related to personal relationships, I occasionally attend services in a Chabad shul.  For Yom Kippur services, I go to a ‘United’ shul close to where I live.  I attended Masorti services as well – and liked them very much.  This sounds like a lot of shuls – I know; ironically, I’m not much of a shul goer: in Israel, the only service I ever attended was Kol Nidre…

Of course, I’m aware that there are some differences in doctrine between these denominations – besides variations in the way they worship.  But similarities far outstrip differences.

Yet there are people – in all denominations – that choose (for reasons that I consider neither noble nor legitimate) to focus on the differences.  And to try and widen them as much as possible.  That’s wrong, in my view.

But, lately, there is something else, as well: a propensity, by some ‘spiritual leaders’ to turn their Jewish communities into political movements – in all but name.  That’s not just wrong – it’s a recipe for disaster.

It probably started with the term ‘Progressive Judaism’.  I resent the term ‘progressive’ – and not just when it is applied to religion.  It is inherently arrogant: if you call yourself ‘progressive’, the implication is that anyone who disagrees with you is a caveman.  Not a very good way to make friends, I’d say!

It continued with the enthronement of ‘social justice’ as the Number One Precept of Judaism.  Sure, seeking justice (צדק, צדק תרדוף) is a perennial Judaic quest.  Sure, building a juster, kinder, better society should be seen as part of that quest.  But I have two issues with the way this is implemented in practice.

Firstly, there is more than one valid interpretation of ‘social justice’ and of how a juster, kinder, better society should look like.  The choice of one ‘true path’ has nothing to do with Judaism, ‘Progressive’ or otherwise; it has everything to do with politics.

Secondly, turning the quest for ‘social justice’ into Judaism’s main, definitional value is – bluntly put – intellectually dishonest.

Sure, in the second paragraph of Aleynu we urge the Creator

to perfect [or repair] the world under God’s leadership, so that all mortals will invoke you. [translation mine]

But does this one verse make tikkun olam (improving or repairing the world) the overriding, defining precept of Judaism?  Those who claim so wilfully ignore the first paragraph of the same prayer, which enjoins Jews to praise God

for making us unlike other nations and positioning us unlike other tribes; for granting us a different role and destiny. [translation mine]

Contrary to what some would like to read into this one prayer, the universalism of the second paragraph is balanced by the particularism/exceptionalism of the first.

But it’s not just about interpreting the texts.  The quest for justice is a moral imperative – and as such is found also in Christianity and Islam, as well as in many a non-religious ideological movement.

And that’s precisely the point: those who worship ‘tikkun olam’ wish to reduce Judaism (and indeed Jewishness) to a political creed – a form of ‘socialism’ sprinkled with a few Hebrew phrases.

Socialism is a legitimate ideology; but to declare it The One True Ideology isn’t Judaism; in fact it is a form of intolerance, of bigotry.

Enter ‘spiritual leaders’ like former ‘Senior Rabbi’ Laura Janner-Klausner.  Last year, soon after the latest British elections (December 2019), I listened to a presentation in which Rabbi Janner-Klausner talked about the Reform Movement and its priorities.  Antisemitism (especially the Labour Party antisemitism, arguably the British Jewry’s main topic of concern over the past few years) was conspicuously absent from her talk.  So, during the Q&A session, I asked: what was the Reform Movement’s position vis-à-vis Labour Party antisemitism?  She clearly did not like the question.  She started by stating that she was a proud member of the Labour Party and ‘had made no secret of that’.  Then she rather sternly advised that ‘we must choose our words carefully’.  Antisemitism may be present in certain parts of the Labour Party leadership, she declared, but we should not imply that the entire party had a problem.

I admit I did not like Rabbi Janner-Klausner, even before that exchange.  But her ‘answer’ really shocked me.  Did she not feel the concern, the worry, the pain and humiliation felt by so many British Jews?  Why did she choose to rise to the defence of the Labour Party, rather than – as a rabbi should – leading and protecting her own community?

Needless to say, since then the EHRC has proven Rabbi Laura wrong.  It identified the problem not just as an issue of leadership, but as one of Labour Party “culture”.

Leaders (spiritual or otherwise) have responsibilities –first and foremost being to… well, to behave responsibly.  Should the ‘Senior Rabbi’ of the Reform Movement identify herself with a political party?  I see this as fundamentally unwise; to put it bluntly – as irresponsible.  Of course, a rabbi can have political opinions, like everybody else.  But should s/he formally join a political party and declare that fact publicly?  Some roles should remain apolitical; even Keir Starmer did not flaunt his political affiliation – while acting as Director of Public Prosecutions.  When it comes to a ‘Senior Rabbi’, it’s not just about protecting the credibility of the role; it’s also the responsibility of not involving the Community unwisely and unnecessarily in political squabbles.

But hasn’t Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis done something similar, by declaring publicly that Jeremy Corbyn (then Leader of the Labour Party) was “unfit for high office”?  I don’t think so.  Rabbi Mirvis did not express a political preference; he did not declare support for (let alone membership of) the Conservative Party.  No, he simply rose – as rabbis did for centuries – in support of his community; giving voice to its concerns and fears.  So did Reform rabbis like Andrea Zanardo and Jonathan Romain.

Publicly identifying with a political party, movement or ideology is the wrong thing for a religious leader to do.

It is, I’d strongly opine, politics – not religion – that drives Rabbi Laura’s attitude towards the Jewish state.

In June this year, even before Tzipi Hotovely (Israel’s new Ambassador to the UK) even made it to the country, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner publicly announced that

“Ambassador-designate Hotovely has views as a politician which are in very strong contrast to the views of Reform Judaism.”

Until then, I had no idea that Reform Judaism had political views!  I joined a religious denomination; when I became a member of a Reform shul, I wasn’t made aware that I needed to subscribe to any particular politics.  Nor was I told that by joining the shul I was somehow empowering the Senior Rabbi to make political statements in my name.

In the same article, Rabbi Laura proceeded to very strongly advise the Ambassador to “set aside” her views.  How ironic: here’s a rabbi telling a politician not to express political views!  Hotovely might have responded by asking the good rabbi to refrain from expressing opinions on matters of faith.

But, jokes aside, this is so ludicrous – it’s not even funny.  One does not have to like Hotovely or her opinions; I certainly disagree with many of them.  But she isn’t the ambassador of the British Reform Movement; or even the ambassador of the British Jewish community.  She is the envoy of the State of Israel – a sovereign state.  Why should her political views be in any way aligned with those of Reform Judaism (or, to be more precise, with those of its Senior Rabbi)?

And why should a rabbi – Senior or otherwise – object to a Jew (let alone an ambassador) expressing her opinions?  Isn’t this what the entire Talmud is – a bunch of opinionated Jews having an argument?  What happened to ‘these and also those are words of the Living God’?  What about ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ and all that jazz??


Thankfully, as I write this, Ms. Janner-Klausner is no longer Senior Rabbi, having gone to pursue what I’m sure are more suitable endeavours.  Perhaps as a result of her departure, the Reform Judaism’s powers that be adopted a somewhat wiser approach: they actually met the Ambassador and had a conversation, rather than bashing her and her political views 'in absentia'.

Yet somehow the politicising influence of Laura Janner-Klausner seems to linger on, like a bad smell.  The ‘News’ section of the website still reads like that of a political movement – with a running commentary (on behalf of ‘Reform Judaism’) on many an utterly secular decision by the Government of Israel.

And, while probably milder than anything the former Senior Rabbi would have written, the statement released after meeting the Ambassador still rings distinctly unpleasant.  It opens by declaring:

“Reform Judaism hosted Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely for a Hannukah candle lighting ceremony to set out our progressive values.”

One would have hoped that British Jews needed no a special reason to invite a recently arrived Israeli Jew to a Hannukah candle lighting ceremony.  But, if a reason had to be mentioned, perhaps ‘getting to know each other’ or even ‘exchanging opinions’ would have sounded less arrogant, cold and hostile.

The statement then went on to tick all the obligatory political boxes, including

“the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and human rights for the Palestinian people”.

Not much time spent on pleasantries and small talk, then!  Apparently, the Ambassador did not respond by bringing up similarly controversial Diaspora issues, such as the galloping assimilation and the young people’s estrangement from Judaism.  I guess that’s why she’s a diplomat!

Next, the statement quotes a certain Amit Handelsman, Director of Community Partnership, who sounds as if he did Hotovely a huge favour by even talking to her:

“While we acknowledge our differences of opinion, Reform Judaism has started a conversation with Ambassador Hotovely to ensure she understands the progressive Zionist values we hold.”

Hotovely probably thought ‘What a condescending prick’.  Or such equivalent terms that an observant Jewish woman might use on such occasions.

Mr. Handelsman then goes on to say

“We are proud to be a critical friend of Israel and hope to be able to continue to have robust and honest conversations with the Israeli Embassy…”

There’s something profoundly wrong with this: why should anyone be “proud to be a critical friend”?  Sure, friends may criticise each other’s actions or positions,; nothing wrong with that.  But they don’t set out to be critical.  If you wanna be my friend, I’d hope you are proud of that fact – proud to be my friend; you can criticise me when you feel you need to.  But if you’re proud to be my critical friend; if you hope to have “robust and honest” (rather than friendly and pleasant) conversations – then I think you’re no friend at all.

Mr. Handelsman then issued what sounds like a new Declaration of Faith:

“Reform Judaism remains guided by our key values and principles of peace, democracy, equality, human rights and pluralism.”

Are these, I ask, the “key values” of a religious community (especially one with ‘Judaism’ in its name)?  Or those of a political movement?  How about the continuity of the Jewish people?  Is that also a key value and principle of Reform Judaism?

Finally, Mr. Handelsman put icing on this rather disgusting cake, by stating

“We work closely and in partnership with our brothers and sisters in the Israeli Reform Movement to create a better and just Israel for all its inhabitants.”

And I thought, dear Amit, that all Israeli Jews were “our brothers and sisters”??

No, I am definitely not that kind of ‘Reform Jew’ – not one of Mr. Handelsman’s “brothers and sisters”.  Me, I’m just a Jew – and a proud member of the “all […] inhabitants” category.