Palestinian lives matter

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If Black lives matter to us, Palestinian lives should too

George Floyd and Eyad Hallaq were killed in the same week. The British Jewish press has spilt much ink on the former – and barely a drop on the latter.

As the world knows, on 25 May, George Floyd was brutally killed while in police custody. As much less of the world knows, five days later, Eyad Hallaq, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian with severe learning disabilities (he had a mental age of seven), was killed by Jerusalem police while under their control. He was on his way to his special-needs school.

I have personal experience of people with autism, and know that they often find their environment frightening. It appears this was true of Hallaq. Without knowing anything of the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, he was scared of Israeli police officers – and, it transpired, with good reason. His mother had given him a mobile phone to protect him. The police thought it might be a weapon, so they killed him.

The parallels are obvious. Both victims belong to groups with a strong sense of historical grievance. Both of those groups believe that the dominant majority regards their lives as cheap. Both were deliberately killed. Derek Chauvin could hear Floyd calling out for breath for several minutes before he became unresponsive. The Israeli police officer could not reasonably have believed Hallaq would survive the ten to twelve bullets he fired into his body.

The differences are also obvious. Floyd’s murder sparked mass protests throughout the United States and around the world, driving even coronavirus out of the headlines. Hallaq’s killing, on the other hand, has provoked scarcely a murmur. The protests in Israel have been small, the media coverage microscopic. The British press has scarcely made mention of it, and the British-Jewish press, which normally follows Israeli affairs assiduously, has not covered it at all. The Jewish Chronicle, with its record of anti-Palestinian racism, has used Floyd’s murder to preen itself on its antiracist credentials, while all but ignoring Hallaq (although they did publish my letter on the subject).

What conclusions can we draw from this? The obvious one is that Palestinian lives do not matter, not just in Israel, but in many other parts of the world. This cannot be news to anyone not afflicted by acute myopia. Examples are legion; I have many of my own. After 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, the chairman of one of the largest Jewish charities in the world sent an email to his board, of which I was then a member, lamenting the loss of life that summer, namely the sixty-seven Israeli soldiers who had been killed during the operation. I wrote back to him, inquiring about the more than two thousand Gazans who had also been killed (as far as I am aware, no one else raised this point); he replied that he did not wish to be controversial. This man was not vicious or racist – it was just that for him as for so many others, Palestinians, particularly dead ones, were invisible.

More recently, a settler living in Samaria was brutally killed by a terrorist, prompting justified outrage in the UK. I heard that in one London synagogue, the congregation broke out in a spontaneous rendition of the Hatikva after the rabbi’s sermon, in tribute to the murdered man. Then in December last year, the Israeli Air Force, looking for a terrorist, bombed a house in Gaza where they believed he was living. The Israeli armed forces have detailed knowledge of Gaza, but their intelligence failed them this time. There was no terrorist, just an ordinary Gazan family. The bombing killed nine members of the Suwarka family, including 12-year-old Mohannad, three-year-old Salim and three-month-old Firas. The deaths, like Hallaq’s, were not reported in the British press nor in the British Jewish press; I only found out about it from Haaretz. The response to the bombing that I heard from even quite dovish observers was that we could only take a view on its rightness or wrongness after a thorough investigation. They know as well as I do that that is not going to happen.

Another conclusion we may draw from all this is that the Israeli government’s aim is to kill rather than neutralise terrorists, even suspected ones. When the Israeli policeman fired the fatal shots, Hallaq was already lying on the ground, bleeding. His carer was calling out to the police in both Hebrew and Arabic that he had special needs. Hallaq himself called out, presumably in Arabic, that he was with her. Autistic people are generally very easy to spot. Was it necessary to dispose of him so quickly?

When killings like Hallaq’s occur, we are often reminded that Israel and the Palestinians are in conflict. Let us remember, however, that Hallaq’s killing took place in Jerusalem, not in the Territories. Israel has claimed sovereignty over the city for the last fifty years. Hallaq may not have had Israeli citizenship, but he was an Israeli subject, and as such, entitled to the state’s protection. If this is the treatment Palestinian citizens of Israel currently receive, what awaits those in the territory Israel is proposing to annex?

Another difference between Floyd’s killing and that of Hallaq is in the subsequent treatment of their families. Since Floyd was killed, his family has been visited by numerous celebrities, including the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Hallaq’s family have had a visit, too – theirs from the police who, having killed their son, raided their house, detained and allegedly assaulted a number of family members. While graphic images of Floyd’s killing have enraged protesters the world over, video footage of Hallaq’s last moments has yet to be released by the police; advisers to the Hallaq family were initially denied access to Eyad’s body. Meanwhile, Netanyahu refers to the event as a “tragedy”, as if describing an accident.

Is this the result of racism? If Hallaq had been Jewish and acting suspiciously, would the police have simply executed him? In a meeting I once chaired at the Board, a deputy stated that he did not care about dead Palestinians, only dead Israelis. For this, he was defended in the Jewish Chronicle. My rather banal response – that we as Jews should regard all human life as sacred – was attacked as a betrayal of Orthodox Judaism. Yet the acid test of this contention is to reverse the terms: how would we feel if “Jew” were substituted for “Palestinian”? If this deputy had said they did not care about dead Jews, only dead Palestinians?

The killing of George Floyd has led to a worldwide movement calling on us all to reflect on the darker side of our histories, and the role that racism has played and still plays in our lives. Hopefully it will lead to a reappraisal of the significance of Black lives. Freedom, however, is indivisible. How can we demand that respect be extended to Black people, then deny it to Palestinians? The relationship between Israel and the diaspora is a complicated one; it is often said in British Jewish circles that whatever we say, we will be ignored. That is no reason not to say anything. If we believe we are entitled to speak out about injustice in America, we are compelled to speak out about injustice in Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, and one which claims to represent us. Until we do, our silence condemns us.

Deceptions

With Covid 19 stalking the planet, it is not surprising that people are looking out for medicines or devices that can prevent people from developing the virus, or cure them once they have done so. President Trump made his suggestion which has been rubbished by scientists generally, but a quite different solution has been offered by a charity in Israel, Kupat Ha’ir. For three thousand shekels (approximately eight hundred and forty dollars) they will supply an amulet which will protect the wearer against Covid 19, or any other disease for that matter. The protection extends it seems to all residents of his/her house. If effective, it is a bargain at twice the price.

That is fortunate because the price is non-negotiable. That is the amount the Almighty requires you to pay in order to benefit from His protection; no more, no less. It is the amount needed to help a family suffering from the effects of the disease. He will however permit payment by instalments up to thirty in all – presumably interest free. The amulet, and the protection it provides, has been promoted by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading Rabbis of the Haredi community. It was his edict that the Yeshivot should not close which led Haredim to resist the lockdown measures brought in by the government. Arguably this has been a major reason why the occurrence of the virus has been so much higher in the Haredi community than it is in the general population.

Much depends on the details. Is the rabbi telling us that the amulet does not absolve us from the need to take normal precautions like social distancing? In which case punters may not be certain that it is the amulet which is effective, and that they are getting value for money. Or is he saying that the amulet works on its own, in which case its wearers may end up taking risks they might otherwise have avoided.  This could result in people catching the virus who might otherwise have avoided it. It is unlikely that this will trouble the venerable Rabbi. He has not been fazed by the consequences of his previous intervention.

Clearly his followers will not be troubled either. After all, these are people, who at the onset of the pandemic took advice, not from a virologist or an epidemiologist, but from a ninety two year old specialist in ancient texts whose knowledge of viruses would probably barely cover a postage stamp. This will not prevent them blaming the non Haredi world for their misfortunes. But as an observer of their community said, victimhood is embedded in their DNA.

 

I feel strongly that the community is in a very bad place morally. All the talk of anti-Semitism is concealing the fact that the community itself is deeply infected by anti Palestinian racism. After Operation Cast Lead in 2009 the BBC declined to publicise DEC operations in Gaza for fear of offending the Jewish community. Why should we be offended at humanitarian aid being given to victims of the country with which we are so closely associated? This seemed to us at the time to be over cautious but when after Operation Protective Edge in 2014 the JC publicised DEC there was an outcry led by Rabbis –so called men of God. Not I gather because of the presence of Islamic relief among the beneficiaries but simply because the relief was helping Palestinians who as we all know are like the Nazis. The worst aspect of this, is the indifference to Palestinian life, and the worst example of that was the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This, as you know, was launched ostensibly in response to sporadic attacks across the border, in which a handful of Israelis were killed. It was transformed into a regime change project by Sharon and Eitan. Eventually 635 Israeli soldiers were killed. The resulting furore destroyed Begin who died a broken man suffering repeated attacks of depression in his last years. But how many Arabs were killed? Who knows? Who cares? Conservative estimates put the number at twenty thousand -more than the population of a small town, like Kidderminster, all to satisfy the ambitions of Sharon and Eitan-but as I say, who cares? After Protective Edge, as a Director of the conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany, possibly the largest Jewish charity in the world, I got an email from our Chairman lamenting the loss of life that summer. He was referring to sixty seven Israeli dead. I wrote to him saying that there were also more than two thousand Palestinians killed. He said he did not want to be controversial. But why should that be controversial? He was not claiming that the Palestinians were not dead. Perhaps he thought they all deserved to die. I have just found out that there were ten thousand Palestinians wounded in the Operation including more than three thousand children. About a thousand of these will be maimed for life. But as I asked before who cares? I write this as someone who comes from the heart of the Zionist movement. I have lived in Israel, most of my family do. I have a property there, speak Hebrew and gave my children Israeli names. I am not an anti-Semite nor a timid self-hating Jew as Stephen Pollard would have it. I just don’t think the community is paying nearly enough attention to the consequences of Israel’s actions.

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?  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? Since writing this I have discovered that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe revered by many outside his community and believed to be the Messiah by even more inside it was a geocentrist.

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 anti-scientific 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.