Sunday, 21 December 2014

I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

Please, thanks and sorry. Three simple words that formed the cornerstone of my earliest sentences. They were not superfluous extras, and if I did not mention one of them where appropriate, a reminder from my parents would swiftly follow.

All three words are admissions that you are in some way reliant on others in order to co-exist together. If you don’t apologise, it means you don’t need other people to carry on. If you don’t say please, you imply that others are there to serve you. If you don’t thank someone, you are failing to appreciate what you have. These three implications cut to the core of the most fundamental ethics of Jewish teaching; that of loving one’s fellow, treating people with respect and appreciating what one has.

I started thinking about this idea when I saw the Bayit Yehudi (National Home) Party’s new satirical promotional clip on Facebook. It features leader Naftali Bennett dressed up as a hipster, walking around Tel Aviv apologising for things he clearly hasn’t done. A waitress spills coffee over him, a car drives into his and a lady takes a bike he was about to take – and in all three cases, he apologises. After reading an article in the left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz entitled ‘Israel must apologise’, he reveals himself and announces that “from today, we stop apologising”.

Without entering into the political implications of this promotion, the satirising of an apology as weakness is a very dangerous step. In one of the Torah’s most dramatic moments, Yehuda, who had descended into a cycle of sin and depravity apologises for his actions, admitting he was wrong. God viewed this as a sign of strength, not weakness, and it is because of this episode that Yehuda was able to assume the mantle of Jewish leadership, and ultimately kingship, for all time.

Living and working in Israel, and specifically in the Religious Zionist community, my anecdotal perception is that people say please, thanks and sorry less in Israel than in Britain. This perception is compounded by the many times I have heard Israelis make fun of British people for being polite. Don’t worry, I have a sense of humour – but I don’t find this joke funny. I am proud to maintain my British manners of saying please, thanks and sorry even when my parents are in another country – and I won’t apologise for it.

I agree that people – and states – should not apologise for things they haven’t done wrong and should apologise for things they have. But even this basic level of nuance is not reflected in his ‘anti-apologist’ message. What starts as a political campaign could well reinforce societal norms. Israeli society on a day-to-day level needs people to start healing wounds with one another, and could do with its leadership promoting the notion of apologising when relevant.

It could be that Naftali Bennett has a point that the Bayit Yehudi, or more broadly Israel, needs to be less apologetic for its beliefs and actions. However with this strategy, he is playing around with one of the traits most crucial to maintaining Israel as a tolerant and inclusive society. It is time for those of us who have grown up with a culture of saying please, thanks and sorry to unashamedly bring these words, and associated concepts, to the discourse of Israeli society. If we can’t, well, I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Squeezed Middle of the Big Society

In the post-modern, multicultural and globalised world we live in today, it is much harder for western countries to define a sense of national identity and shared values. The UK is a prime case in point. Should it define itself through its Christian, imperial history or its multicultural, liberal present? In the days of New Labour, the latter was stressed. Now, following the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, the Coalition government are moving to the former.

Beyond this debate lies the UK’s Jewish community, happily going about its business. British Jews, with a long history of loyalty to Queen and country, a religious and cultural predisposition to integrate into a host country’s society and a broad sharing of values with modern Britain, seem to be above this kind of national identity crisis. Defining its relationship with mainstream British culture by its contribution to it, which has undoubtedly been disproportionately influential, the Jewish community’s place within British society is seemingly beyond question.

Or perhaps not. In Sir Michael Wilshaw’s (Head of Ofsted) Advice Note to the UK government in light of ‘Trojan Horse’, where inspections revealed that groups of governors with Islamic extremist tendencies had dramatically altered the ethos of some state schools in Birmingham in accordance with their agendas, he says that “in culturally homogeneous communities, schools are often the only places where children can learn about other faiths, other cultures and other styles of living”. As a result, all schools – including faith schools, will be required to “promote the values of wider British society”.

Although this policy seems innocuous, it could well represent a fatal blow to the right of the Jewish community to define the way it wants to live in the UK. Most would agree that Jewish schools prepare their students for life in modern Britain – even Charedi schools, who, despite their radically conservative approach, still produce law-abiding and respectful citizens. However they do much more than this. Whether it is Zionist principles of Jewish nationalism, support for the IDF and a positive disposition towards Aliyah or religious Jewish principles of fighting assimilation, traditional family values and differing roles for men and women, any inspection focusing on beliefs and attitudes within Jewish schools will put them on collision course with Ofsted and call into question their very existence within society.

The fundamental shift here is the switch from defining a minority community’s relationship with mainstream society by contribution, to one by belief. Although there are certainly problems with extremist values being taught in schools, turning Ofsted into the ‘thought police’ sets a dangerous precedent.

British politics is experiencing a polarisation of views to both the left and the right. The disaffected liberal middle class is pushing Labour towards the left, abandoning Tony Blair’s ‘third way’, whilst the disaffected working class is pushing the Conservatives towards the right, manifested indirectly through widespread support for UKIP. The Jewish community is becoming abandoned in the middle. Support for the IDF arouses the ire of the left, whilst the concept of a dual loyalty to Britain and Israel will soon cross a red line for the right.

History has a tendency to repeat itself. Jews have always been the enemy of the far left and the far right. However, bad things happen when they are attacked from both sides simultaneously. And what’s more, of all the issues to affect the Jewish community, it is the right to educate children in the Jewish way that represents one of the absolute fundamentals of Jewish life.

Ironically, it is the Jewish people who taught the western world the value of education and the right of every child to receive one. It is the Jewish people who have vast and successful experience of teaching Jewish values in a host country. It is the Jewish people who have consistently integrated into cultures the world over, bringing their own vigour and creativity to improving the society around them.

The UK Jewish community are fast becoming the 'Squeezed Middle' of the 'Big Society'. But sadly, neither Ed Miliband nor David Cameron seem to be paying attention.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Singing in Auschwitz

An open letter to the Director of the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

I am the head of the World Bnei Akiva MTA programme, whose visit to Auschwitz on Friday 1st August has garnered much publicity throughout Israel and the Jewish world due to the detention and fining of its tour guide, Rabbi Rafi Ostroff.

Since the story has broken, your policy has been to defend the actions of your security personnel. Your PR department has made numerous comments on Facebook, including many examples of inaccurate reports about our group's behaviour. These include, but are not limited to: running around the site, not having a memorial guide and waving flags so that other visitors had to move away quickly. You have described our behaviour as "awful" and claimed that we were "disrupting public order". You have admitted that groups are able to sing "at the top of their lungs" when they are "alone" on the site, yet your police drove over to stop the group singing when no-one was around (see picture).

You followed a policy of constantly responding to posts about this incident, however the result has been that your story has been inconsistent. In some - but not all - cases, you have apologised for making inaccurate claims about our group and mixing it up with other groups on site. In addition to this, you claim to have video footage of the event, and to have received "numerous" complaints by visitors and guides. But you haven't specified how many, nor have you released the video.

You have constantly talked about the requirement for sensitivity within the site, yet I have not seen you address the lack of sensitivity displayed by your security personnel throughout the day, which could have prevented this incident from escalating. In particular, but not exclusively, I am referring to the incident which actually resulted in the calling of the police, which followed the group singing on the path from 'Mexico' towards the convent, and then towards the exit with no-one else in sight. The security officer, who drove out of his way to challenge us, approached me and we had a long conversation. I tried to defuse the situation, saying that the boys are not disturbing anyone and will be out of the site in a minute. His decision to escalate matters by insisting they stopped singing at the exit (see picture), detaining Rabbi Ostroff and eventually calling the police displayed a lack of sensitivity towards our group at a site that requires it more than any other.

You have also tried to claim that ours was an isolated incident, yet I know of two other groups who also faced similar problems with security personnel in Auschwitz over the last few weeks. Given that singing by Jewish groups in Auschwitz is an established practice for many years, I find it hard to believe that the general demeanour of Jewish groups has changed recently. Indeed, this was my third visit to Auschwitz as part of a group of young Jewish people and each time we have sung at the same locations and conducted ourselves in the same way without any issue with the site management. As a principle, singing slow and sad songs is how Jewish people commemorate and memorialise the Holocaust, and remember their loved ones at sites where their family members perished, especially Auschwitz.

As a result of all this, I request that you personally write a letter to the 18-year-old members of the group and apologise for spreading mistruths about their conduct, in addition to apologising to Rabbi Ostroff for the incident itself. I also request that rather than punishing the participants by taking away 1000 zloties from their group's budget, you return the money, which I will put towards more Holocaust education for the programme. Finally, I ask that you initiate a training programme for your staff in order for them to understand the sensitivities required with regard to Jewish and Israeli groups.

Friday, 25 July 2014

A people that dwells alone

The song 'Hein Am' by Yaakov Shwekey has, in recent years, become a popular tune at Jewish celebrations. It is a quote from Bamidbar 23:9, uttered by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam, who famously tried to curse the Jewish people yet after divine intervention ended up blessing them: "From the top of the rocks I see him [referring to the Jewish people], and from the hills I behold him; behold, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations".

The tune and upbeat nature of this song suggests that the words are to be celebrated: in this case, that the Jewish people were, are, and forever will be alone, and that we should accept this, and rejoice in it. This feeling of loneliness among the nations is felt throughout the Jewish world today, especially during times of war in Israel, as is the case currently. It was certainly the overriding feeling felt by millions of Jews who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and the bold attempts to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel against the odds.

However, Rabbi Sacks makes a strong argument that this prophecy remains that which Bilam intended - a curse. He brings the Talmud Sanhedrin's statement that all of Bilam's 'blessings' turned into curses with the exception of one. Furthermore, the great commentators understood the phrase to mean that Jews are indestructible (Rashi), don't assimilate (Ibn Ezra) and maintain their own integrity (Ramban). To be isolated, says Rabbi Sacks, is not a blessing, nor is it our destiny.

Although the notion of Jewish isolation has played a role in my education, and was my way of dealing with the challenges of being a religious Jew at a non-Jewish school during the Second Intifada, I have grown to appreciate Rabbi Sacks' assertion. The Jewish mission of bringing peace and justice to the world through a recognition of God cannot be achieved without it. Just as with my religious Zionist belief that we can hasten the redemption through our actions, so too here, we must win over the nations of the world and not shut ourselves off from it. As Rabbi Sacks says, "It is vitally important not to believe in advance that we are destined to be alone...If we are convinced we will fail, we probably will. That is why the rabbis were right to suggest that Bilam’s words were not necessarily well-meant" (Covenant and Conversation, Parashat Balak 5771).

Yet despite all this, during Operation Protective Edge, I find myself once again resorting to feelings of loneliness. The accusations I have heard are familiar refrains: Israel has no regard for international law; Israel places a lower value on Palestinian life compared to Israeli life; Israel deliberately targets, or doesn't do enough to prevent, civilian casualties; terrorism comes as a result of Israel's policies; Israel's response to attacks on its citizens is allowed, but always disproportionate - and more. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that there are key figures such as world leaders and newspaper editors who do support Israel's actions, these accusations still run abound throughout the world media and popular opinion.

Yet as Israel approaches each new conflict, and specifically in Operation Protective Edge, there are two things that improve. One is the effort to which Israel goes to protect Palestinian lives, be it through phone warnings before strikes, setting up field hospitals or calling off airstrikes if civilians are detected. The other is Israel's determination to film action on the ground and publicise it on social media, so that rather than merely hearing from an IDF spokesman, we can see for ourselves the Hamas tunnels, stores of rockets and the hospitals and schools being used as rocket launch bases. In 2014 Israel has become extremely proficient in both areas, and leads the world in how to respond proportionately to constant terrorist threats, whilst maintaining dignity for the rights of civilians despite the often-blurred lines between civilian and terrorist.

This is why I feel alone when I hear the familiar accusations against Israel in 2014. Even if they applied to any degree in previous campaigns, I find it impossible to justify them with regard to Operation Protective Edge. Israel have not ignored the world and practiced isolationism. Rather, the effort to project Israel's message to the world has been the best yet - from political decisions made with world opinion in mind to mass media campaigns affecting the common person. Furthermore, this conflict has been with Hamas, a terrorist organisation whose charter, rhetoric and recent military and political decisions, one would think, leaves it morally indefensible.

I want to resist the natural reaction and declare that indeed, we are destined to be a nation that dwells alone. I don't want to believe that no-one understands us. Moreover, I do not want to resign myself to the knowledge that Israel must be seen as the aggressor, and that we should give up persuading the world otherwise. But how can this apparent chasm between the ideal and the reality be bridged?

One of the oft-repeated frustrations shared by supporters of Israel is the tendency to lend a higher level of scrutiny to its actions in comparison with other world conflicts, whether through media attention, UN resolutions or governmental action. Although this frustration is understandable, especially, for example, in light of the atrocities being committed in Syria, it also misses the point. Irrespective of other conflicts, Israel should be acting to the absolute highest moral standard and world attention should be a cause for optimism, so that we can showcase our ethical values to the world. In effect, it's not enough to be 'better' in comparison. As a Jewish country, we should only strive for the absolute best in every moral count.

Perhaps herein lies our challenge. At times of war, the people of Israel come together and unite. This unity is not just based on a common concern for each other's welfare, rather it is also based on a unity of values, such as the right of self-defence and the care for all casualties of war, on both sides. However in times of peace, do we experience the same unity? And if we do, how often is it unity based on common values? For all Israel's achievements, we who strive for only the highest moral standards, know that we can do more to improve our society and thus influence the nations around us. Is our society free of corruption, free of crime and free of intolerance? Can we do better in helping minorities, balancing inequalities and creating the haven of social justice envisioned by our prophets? We know that the answer to this is that we can improve - and that's natural, since we are a relatively new state, which is work in progress.

The world, subconsciously or not, is looking to the Jewish state to provide the highest possible moral standard in everything it does. We know from history that when the Jewish state was at its religious and ethical best during the time of King Solomon, it ushered in an era of financial security and peace, and Israel was the envy of the nations. We shouldn't need to compare ourselves to other nations, rather we only need look to our own heritage, traditions and values, and act accordingly. I would like to suggest that the chasm between the ideal position of Israel within the world and its current standing will not be bridged during the flare-ups of war. Rather, the times of war merely express the disquiet the world feels with our inability to fully realise the Jewish mission to be the world's moral standard every single moment of every single day.

Bilam's prophecy cleverly played on the notion of chosenness, a positive force which he turned into a negative one by foretelling our isolation among the nations. If we want to rid ourselves of this curse and never to feel the loneliness we currently feel, we need to channel this force and dedicate our efforts to making Israel the absolute moral entity we have dreamed for, prayed for, and are on the way to achieving.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Tribute to Uncle Max

These words are a tribute to 'Uncle' Max Fishel, who sadly passed away on Friday, 29 Sivan 5774. Our thoughts are with 'Auntie' Rene and all the family.

I have many aunties and uncles. As well as my biological ones, I count the various parents of my generation growing up in Wanstead & Woodford Synagogue as aunties and uncles - and I know my friends do the same. The people I went to shul with were family and I still feel part of a very special community exuding warmth, care and a passion for Judaism and Israel. And there was one man who everyone in the community looked up to, who embodied all of these values. 

Uncle Max was the ultimate shul man, putting his heart and soul into the good of the Wanstead & Woodford community. He was the shul's 'sweet man' - when you came into shul, your first stop was to go to Uncle Max, where you would receive a 'Good Shabbes', a smile and a sweet (and a chocolate on Rosh Hashanah!). He was the shul's librarian, opening up the collection of books, tapes and videos to all on Sunday mornings. And, after every service, he would go through the bookcases ensuring that all the siddurim and chumashim had been placed the right way up. He understood what a shul is all about - respect, learning and warmth.

Uncle Max was truly someone who embraced all, and as a result, brought many people closer to Judaism - in fact, I fail to ever recall a bad word said about him. There are people who owe their Jewish identities to him as a result of him taking them in, offering them a seat and guiding them through the service. His dedication to going to shul was beyond all expectations. In health, he would be ever-present, but despite many spells in hospital in recent years, he would summon immense courage and retake his regular seat in shul, still smiling, getting called up as the shul's most honoured Levi, and chatting to people at kiddush.

One of my most vivid memories of recent years was seeing Uncle Max standing guard by the Aron Kodesh at Neilah of Yom Kippur, with the community enjoined in passionate prayer. Nothing pleased Uncle Max more than a full shul, and I am sure that the sight he saw at that moment, albeit a rare occurrence, filled him with happiness.

In recent years, when his health declined, Rafi Saltman and I, amongst others, were privileged to lead Seder nights for Uncle Max and Auntie Rene. Even in poor health, he attempted to say the brachot, eat matza, sing along to Dayenu and make his customary jokes on the way. We were both inspired as we returned to our families - Uncle Max represented the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people, committed to the Torah despite his hardships. 

Another Pesach, Uncle Max was taken into hospital on first day Yom Tov. On the afternoon of the second day, a group of eight young people all walked to Whipps Cross Hospital to visit him. The hospital couldn't quite work it out - if we weren't all grandchildren, what were we all doing visiting a 90-year old man? But to us it was obvious. The fact that all the young people in shul would spend their Yom Tov afternoon visiting Uncle Max was a given, and to see his happiness in seeing each and every one of us, meant more to all of us than words could imagine.

My community, and the Jewish people as a whole, have lost a truly great man, one of the most righteous people I have known and one of my life role models. I have written this article partly to share my memories and stories, but also to encourage us to learn lessons from his life. All it takes is a welcoming smile to a newcomer or visitor in shul - the difference we make may last for generations. If we can all take this upon ourselves, we will truly have perpetuated Uncle Max's legacy.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Why I won't sign on the Green Line

Before you read this blogpost, you should check something first:

Have I signed on the Green Line?

Because no doubt that before you read whatever I am going to post, you'll want to know whether I do or don't subscribe to the Green Line being drawn on all maps of Israel. Once you know this, you can place me in one of the two camps, which a new campaign started by 16 young British Jews is trying to create.

Well, I haven't signed on the Green Line and I'm not planning to. I don't have a problem with drawing the Green Line on a map, and my decision not to sign has nothing to do with my political views about the peace process.

It's that this campaign is aiming to divide the community. Organisations that are "yet to sign up" are held hostage by this campaign by being named and shamed publicly - all this assuming that not signing up to the campaign is something to be ashamed of.

This is an extremely dangerous precedent. It is true that Jewish organisations are sometimes forced into making yes or no choices which have public ramifications. Shuls either do or don't say the Prayer for the State of Israel, and I for one strongly disagree with those who don't. However I don't believe we need to name and shame them, thus creating unnecessary division. If unchecked, this type of campaign could be repeated for any divisive issue in the community, pitting half the community against another.

However it goes further than that. Just because such decisions are made does not mean that the reasons behind them are uniform. By listing all non-signed up organisations in one 'wanted list', assumes that whatever reasoning they may have for not signing up, it's not worth noting. Not only do we not know their reasons, we do not care either - because they have all been listed as 'yet to sign up', which suggests that once they have seen the light, they will.

But what if we say that the campaign, despite its questionable tactics, is ultimately right, and there is never a situation where it is acceptable to omit the Green Line from a map? The answer is - that's not the point. Whether the organisers intended it or not, the decision to sign or not will be viewed as whether one's views on the peace process are left-wing or right-wing. People will be judged before their views have been heard on the subject, and that does nothing to facilitate an "honest, well-informed discussion on Israel", as the campaign wishes.

Furthermore, one of the claims of the campaign is that it is not political, and that their quest is to bring balance to Israel education. However if one signs up to the campaign, they may notice that there is a tickbox which allows you to find out more information about the work of Yachad, who are supporting the campaign. Yachad are a political organisation with political objectives - notably a two-state solution and the division of Jerusalem. The box is automatically ticked. The fact that this campaign is being backed to that extent by a left-wing political lobbying group undermines its supposedly apolitical stance.

So, if you've managed to read this far, well done. You've hopefully realised that in all of my above points, I have not indicated whatsoever what my political leanings are. And no simplistic campaign will ever force me to reveal them.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

iDeals or Ideals?

We've read the history books and learnt about the great figures of the past - but that's not us, right? They lived in times when people lived for their ideals, not surrounded by the self-centred culture we are exposed to today. Nowadays, people just aren't as idealistic as they once were.

Having grown up in the UK Jewish community, I have heard these sentiments expressed in a number of forms on many occasions. So it is refreshing to see people breaking down the myths and showing it is possible to live for an ideal and carry it out.

This week, Gideon Bratt, Eve Minsky and Gabi Sacofsky made aliyah. All three, before and after their year on Bnei Akiva's Hachshara programme, have made huge contributions to their local communities, J-Soc and Bnei Akiva, including Gideon and Eve working on the Mazkirut. It's not a new thing for British BA-niks to make aliyah, but it is rare for three bogrim to jointly make a decision to come together, a very short time after finishing university, and as a natural next step after fulfilling senior tafkidim in Bnei Akiva.

The public nature of the aliyah, from the crowd that greeted them at Ben Gurion to the huge amount of Facebook publicity it generated, will have an impact far and wide. Younger BA-niks should be inspired that not only is aliyah possible, but it's something you can do with friends who share your goals and dreams to the extent that it would make them move countries.

The fact that all three had spent time in England between their gap year in Israel and Aliyah should not be understated. Not only does it show a huge determination to fulfil their goals, it also meant that they were able to inspire and educate hundreds of chanichim to make similar life choices.

With six previous Mazkirut members making Aliyah in the last year as well as many others, everyone connected to Bnei Akiva UK should reflect on what an amazing chinuch framework it has, and specifically that unlike much of society around it, the drive, passion and idealism of its leaders shows no sign of abating - and that is something to be inspired by.