Who is to blame for the measles epidemic in the Haredi community

It is no coincidence that the latest spike in unvaccinated children has arisen in the Haredi community in New York. Whilst the leading rabbis of the community have called on their followers to vaccinate their children to prevent the epidemic from spreading they must still bear a share of the responsibility for it in the first place.

Why should the epidemic have arisen in this community?  It is no coincidence that its leaders bring their followers up to despise scientists whether Jewish or non-Jewish and to have no respect for non-Jews even when in authority. They are encouraged to believe that Rabbis have a monopoly on true knowledge whether religious or secular. Whereas science is changing and fallible the Torah and Talmud are immutable and infallible. Some even go so far as to proclaim the doctrine of Da’as Torah; that a Rabbi who has mastered the ancient and medieval texts that make up the corpus of Rabbinic learning is to be listened to and followed on any subject however unrelated to their area of expertise. It has even been argued that precisely their lack of education and their ignorance of secular subjects gives these Rabbis  a clearer perspective on the world.

These ideas are not the preserve of a few extremists. Even Rabbis regarded as not strictly Haredi come up with similar doctrines. Here in North West London an independent orthodox rabbi refused to disavow Maimonides’ assertion that the sun goes round the earth. After all he argued Newton has been disproved by Einstein and who is to say Einstein might not be disproved by someone agreeing with Maimonides? And what about the Rabbi in Golders Green who pointed out that Evolution is only a theory and one which is full of holes and is incompatible with belief in the Torah. With Sages like this not only in position but revered as fountains of wisdom can it be surprising that their credulous followers fall prey to antiscientific non-sense?


Rabbi Dweck affair

The Dweck affair has exposed one of the haredi community’s most squalid secrets. At its root was the question of, what behaviour makes a Rabbi unfit to do his job. For that community, the answer was clear; sermons showing compassion and support to gay people and showing leniency on Halachic issues were damning.  On conduct, however, they were not so sure. When a Rabbi in that community was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour by thirty different women that was not sufficient. I must make it clear that he has been accused but not charged let alone convicted of any wrongdoing. The issue is not the community’s attitude to this Rabbi but their attitude to the activities of which he was accused; these were regarded as insufficient even to merit a proper investigation let alone dismissal.

But what one may ask about the police? We live after all in a law governed society and what was alleged against the Rabbi was undoubtedly criminal with multiple claimants. No one ever claimed that such acts were legal under British laws or that Rabbis are exempt from them. The answer was that all these thirty women were prepared to give affidavits regarding the events in question but not one of them was prepared to press charges. It has never been suggested that they didn’t regard the charges as serious or that they thought the Rabbi in question should be left alone. Instead they were persuaded that it would be best for all concerned if they did not testify.

We know how they were persuaded. Reports abound ,of conversations where women were warned about their standing in the community being affected, and their children’s marriage prospects being blighted. What woman would be immune to the argument that, whatever the pain and humiliation she had suffered at the hands of a serial sexual predator, it did not justify her damaging her own children’s prospects as a consequence. These arguments are an attempt (successfully) to pervert the course of justice.  In plain English they are blackmail

This leads to a question of a hierarchy of guilt. Who is worse the Rabbi in question who as we have already stated has not even been charged let alone convicted? or the people who, acting on his behalf, or on behalf of the community, procured by blackmail the silence of all the alleged victims? At least the Rabbi, if guilty, was acting for his own gratification under the force of a powerful instinct which, as we all know has destroyed many people’s lives. The blackmailers have no such plea in mitigation. They carried out their activities, not to satisfy a physical urge, and presumably with little sense of guilt, but in the conviction that the interests of their community required it. But what kind of community needs criminal enforcers to preserve social control? Their indifference to female victims parallels the indifference to the feelings of gay people shown by some of those who attacked Rabbi Dweck.

There are decent rabbis in the charedi community who believe that the law of the land is there to be obeyed. It is time for them to give a lead so that this should be appreciated. It is time for the rest of us, the non-charedi observant community to stop kowtowing to them and to recognise that it is a community which has lost its moral compass. The charedim need to learn that we are living in 21st Century Britain not 17th Century Poland, that even great Torah scholars are not above the criminal law and that even women and gay people are entitled to dignity and respect.

The Ride for the Living- a new perspective

It is often said that the holocaust is now passing from memory to history. Jewish children all over the world will soon grow up having no acquaintance with survivors and not even having parents and grandparents who experienced the Second World War and remember it. To keep alive consciousness of the greatest tragedy in our history and the greatest crime in all history the March of the Living was instituted some years ago. Participants march from Auschwitz 1 the largest concentration camp built by the Nazis to Auschwitz Birkenau the deadliest extermination camp built by them. This takes place on Yom Hashoah on 27th Nisan just five days after the end of Pesach in each year. Tens of thousands of people have taken part in this march over the years from all over the world.

In 2014 it was decided to add a Ride for the Living; a commemoration with a very different twist. Participants visit Auschwitz Birkenau and then cycle the ninety kilometres from Birkenau to the ancient city of Krakow former capital of Poland and home before the war to a thriving jewish community and to many of the great sages of Ashkenazi Jewry. There was an added incentive this year as one of the cyclists Marcel Zielinski was himself a survivor of Auschwitz, liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. An extraordinary man with an extraordinary story, he walked to Krakow after the liberation in the vain hope of finding members of his family who had survived. Discovering the complete void which was all that was left of Polish Jewry and the world in which he had been brought up, he left Poland, went on Aliyah to Israel, married another holocaust survivor and ended up as a paterfamilias in Montreal.

Ten years old at the time of the liberation in January 1945 he was eighty three when he participated in the ride this year though that was hard to credit when one saw him cycling and overtaking much younger cyclists. For all the drama in his life in person he is very understated, soft spoken, modest and not given to dramatic gestures. He could not say that we were retracing his exact steps after liberation as he could not remember them he was too young.

Marcel’s life and his extraordinary achievement were symbolic of the trip which was not so much about commemorating the Holocaust as about  celebrating Jewish survival and moving forward; the future not the past. It attracted a number of high profile guests not only Rabbi Michael Shudrich the Chief Rabbi of Poland but also Paul Jones the US ambassador. There were many other non-Jews as well.  At the end we were given a VIP Police escort as we climbed almost the only hills on the ride to finish with a spectacular view of the historic city.

The ride was timed to coincide with the beginning of the 27th Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow one of the oldest and largest Jewish festivals of its kind in the world and recent recipients of an award from the European Festivals Association. All over the city there were signs advertising events at the festival, just as throughout the year there are adverts of tours of Jewish interest including trips to the camps. Questions of taste are naturally raised by this but there is no escaping the fact that in that part of the world there is huge interest in the Jewish contribution to Poland and  surprisingly in view of the tragic nature of Polish Jewish history being Jewish is regarded as cool.

For me it was enough to arrive in Krakow in time for Shabbat dinner with the community. The next day I was privileged to daven and to read the Haftarah at the shul of the Remah-Rabbi Moshe Isserlis – founder of Ashkenazi Jewish halachah- courtesy of our own Jonathan Webber temporary gabbai of the shul. Jonathan, who grew up in HGS and has family here, is doing valuable work in restoring the traditions of this ancient community. The theme of his work just like that of the ride is to celebrate the rich history of Polish Jewry not just to mourn its destruction – a message we ourselves should take to heart.



The Board of Deputies and the Balfour Declaration

Much publicity has been attracted by the controversial joint statement issued to the Times just over one hundred years on 25th May 1917 by David Lindo Alexander QC , then President of the Board of Deputies and Lucien Woolf,  then Chairman of the Anglo Jewish Association(AJA). In their letter they stated that Zionism was of little interest to the mass of world Jewry, who just wished to remain loyal citizens of their own native countries.

The background was the intense struggle of the First World War. The British government ,perhaps overestimating the importance of world Jewry, was anxious to enlist the support of American Jews to persuade their government to enter the war, and of Russian Jews to persuade their government not to leave it. British Jewry was represented by the Board who in matters of foreign policy co-operated with the AJA. They did this through an organisation known as the Conjoint which represented the anti-Zionist views of the Cousinhood- the Anglo-Jewish establishment and resented the Zionists efforts to lobby the Foreign Office . A statement from two leaders of such standing was a serious blow to Zionist aspirations.

The sequel was however even more interesting. At the next meeting of the Board a motion was proposed censuring the President for signing the letter. Alexander’s response was to announce that he was treating the motion as one of confidence thus throwing the full weight of the Presidency against the motion. Nevertheless it was passed by a majority of fifty six to fifty one votes. Alexander immediately resigned as did some of the other honorary Officers to be replaced by Deputies who while not all Zionists did not share Alexander’s rabid anti Zionism or that of his friends from the Cousinhood.

The vote was passed on 17th June. A day or so later the Foreign Office wrote to Lord Rothschild, the President of the Zionist Federation, and to Chaim Weizmann already then a leading Zionist figure asking them for their proposals regarding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The road had been opened for the Balfour Declaration.

The Declaration which took the form of a letter from Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, addressed to Lord Rothschild was issued barely four months later. Rothschild in addition to being President of the Zionist Federation was also Senior Vice President of the Board thus preserving the Board’s role. More important it is hard to see the Declaration being considered let alone issued had it not been for the vote of censure passed by the Board in June 1917. This was not the result of a mass conversion of the deputies to Zionism. Historians have shown the complicated reasons underlying the vote. Indeed it was some decades before the Zionists could claim to have taken over the Board. The vote did however reflect the independence of the Deputies, their refusal to buy in to the anti-Zionism of the Anglo-Jewish establishment or be bound by its views.

Critics of the Board have made much of the letter but unaccountably have glossed over the much more important vote. Its consequences for our time are massive and its implications should not be overlooked.

First blog post

I have set up this blog to record thoughts which I have about current issues or experiences which I would like to share. I also want to use it to develop my thinking and in that regard it is primarily directed towards my children. Two of them have graduated in the last month.The first from Cambridge with a BA the second from Mapledown  School which caters for pupils with severe learning difficulties. I was very proud on both occasions. It is easy to see why I should have been proud of Ronit. The Master of the College commented to me not only on her academic success -she got a double First  Class- but also on her participation in College life.But why should I be so proud of my son Yair? He hasn’t achieved anything while at the school. He is still non-verbal.The greatest battle has been to get him actually to attend school which after a couple of years he does sometimes with apparent enthusiasm. Yet I am proud of him in any meaningful definition of the term and  the reasons why would take another blog to record.