Two Meditations

(1) We are all lunatics. One primary function of society, like a well-run asylum, should be to stop the dangerous lunatics from hurting the harmless ones. Unfortunately, human nature is such that the reverse usually applies: the dangerous lunatics are running the joint, and most of the harmless ones seem enthusiastically to support their tyranny.

(2) Planet Earth can be likened to a jug of custard with a thick skin on top, but suspended in space so the custard forms a sphere with the skin entirely surrounding it. This skin is in fact in several sheets, like ice floes, butting up against each other and constantly in motion. That skin is what we think of as the world. It is dotted with myriad pinpricks through which the custard wells up: we call these volcanoes. Every 10 million years or so we have a basalt flood, where the skin tears open and molten rock floods a sizeable portion of the world, rendering many species extinct. All the anthropogenic climate change that mankind has every caused or is ever likely to cause is trivial in comparison.

Farewell, Sylvester

We lost Sylvester today. Sylvester is a semi-feral tom cat who first appeared about 3 years ago. Initially he would just dart in through the cat-flap late at night and scarf down the food we’d left for Tigger and other visitors. You couldn’t touch him, but he seemed to like me sitting about six feet away and singing quietly to him. After two years or so of this I thought I’d try to tame him. I started getting closer to him and about six months ago stroked him for the first time. He liked it. After a few weeks of tentative handling he started to follow me & butt his head against my hand. One day I heard a rusty rumble: Sylvester, after perhaps a decade in the wild, had remembered from his kittenhood how to purr.

But all was not well. Toms get into fights: and about two years ago he lost an ear. After he had become tame – and he was a very affectionate cat, spending a long time each day stretched out with his face pushed into the palm of my hand or rolling over to have his tummy rubbed – Mum & I took turns trying to clean up the remains of his torn-off ear with warm salt water. But it just kept being re-infected. Unlike most cats he couldn’t jump up anywhere – I thought perhaps one back leg, held awkwardly, had broken and healed years ago. Then, a few weeks ago, a swelling started to appear beside the remains of the ear, and his back legs became very doddery. A visit to the vet was called for.

The news was very grim. Sylvester had diabetes. That would have needed two injections a day and an enforced restricted diet – very difficult when Smudge, our little ginger, is so fussy and needs to be coaxed with food. But for better or worse the decision was taken away from us when further investigation revealed a massively swollen kidney and at least one tumour.

Two days at the vet’s without me had turned Sylvester feral again: they said they could barely handle him. This morning I went down there and had a consultation with the vet. He took me into the kennels to see Sylvester. When the cage door was opened he hissed, cringed and spat, but within three minutes some Dreamies, some crooning and a few gentle strokes had reminded him of who I was, and once again he butted up to my hand and purred like a firehouse. I was crying and telling him how good and brave he was.

Andy the vet was very calm and sympathetic as I picked Sylvester up and cradled him in my arms. Sylvester is a big, muscular tom: the sedative took several minutes to take effect, but finally he lay still. Then came the second, lethal injection.

I am glad I had the courage to be with my Sylvester every moment of his final journey. No months of agony in a body resistant to all painkillers; no weeks of agony as nutrition is withdrawn; no days of agony while hydration is withdrawn. I hope to God someone does the same for me when my time comes.

Sylvester 1Sylvester 2Sylvester 3Sylvester 4

‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ by Amos Oz

I have just finished reading ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ by Amos Oz (a bit late in the day, I know – the English translation came out in 2004). What a read! Ostensibly it is the autobiography of the author’s first sixteen years, but it is so much more than that. It chronicles the history of his family from his grandparents’ childhood in the 1880s, and at times flashes forwards to 2001 when the author was writing. Through his family’s eyes, Oz describes the entire Zionist project from Herzl to Netanyahu – a true roman fleuve.

I must admit I embarked on this book out of a sense of duty, thinking that for somebody interested in Jewish thought and Israeli politics it was a worthy-but-dull must-read. But within a couple of chapters I was as lost in the book as the young Amos Klausner (he changed his surname to Oz after going to the kibbutz) was in the books of his childhood. Great credit must go to Prof. Nicholas de Lange’s limpid and fluid translation.

I have often asked myself why so many Israelis, particularly in Jerusalem, when presented with the glorious sunshine, freedom and physical and mental health of Eretz Yisrael, dafka insist on retaining the neurotic, fearful, shrivelled lifestyle of Eastern Europe. My late father used to say: “It was terrible there, and you should thank God your grandfather got out!”. Amos Oz’s family did not thank God they got out. They brought their Eastern European culture with them to Jerusalem, the intellectual pyrotechnics and crippling fears intertwined, and wrapped it around them like a Dementor comfort blanket, branding all those it touched.

But the book makes you sympathise with these people and understand how and why they were this way. Not just (just!) the Shoah, which casts its shadow over every Jew and will continue to do so for who knows how long, but before that, centuries of persecution, of having our feebleness, compared to the majority population, so embedded in our psyche that we believed it ourselves.

The sabras shook this off, and did it so effectively that they forgot how to empathise with their neurotic mishpoche – thus compounding their neurosis.

This book is so compelling that it even dares – to those that have ears to hear – to propose an answer to the question that most of us dare not ask: Why did we go like sheep to the slaughter between 1941 and 1944?

David Cameron is Inspired by My Speech (Allegedly)

On Sunday 18th October I asked a written question of the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He gave a written response, to which I replied from the floor in clarification:

My Question: How would it damage British Jewry to concentrate exclusively on working with Muslim groups and individuals who are not anti-Zionist – maybe Ahmadiyya, Sufis and Ismailis, – together with (say) DCLG, Eric Pickles and Quilliam, to encourage a peaceful, integrated, British kind of Islam to empower neutral, tolerant Muslims?

Answer from the President: The Board has a policy of co-operating with a variety of Muslim groups both to foster good relations between the communities and to work on issues of mutual interest – for example shechitah and brit milah. While we may not agree on all matters, it is far better to engage the Muslim communities rather than refuse to talk to anyone who does not agree with all of our views on Israel.

My response from the floor: Mr President, when I said we should work exclusively with Muslim groups and individuals who are not anti-Zionist, I wasn’t suggesting we reject approaches from such groups.
No, what I meant was that we shouldn’t be forever running after self-styled Muslim ‘community leaders’ in the name of inter-faith.
A century ago Colonel Albert Goldsmid, founder of our wonderful Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade, enjoined our immigrant forefathers to “iron out the ghetto bend”. No more should we be ‘trembling Israelites’.
We should have the confidence to know that, as fully integrated, contributing citizens of this country, our Brit Milah is first class surgery and our Shechita minimizes animal suffering. We can help our Muslim fellow-citizens improve their practices if they ask us: but under no circumstances should we ‘check the privilege’ so hard-won by our forebears.
There are nearly 3 million Muslims in Britain: don’t tell me that there aren’t a few tens, even hundreds of thousands who are happy to live & let live, and are only stopped from expressing themselves by fear of opposition or worse from the majority leaders.
I see no reason we can’t unapologetically cultivate those minority groups and voices within the ummah that are neutral or tolerant towards Israel.

I think David Cameron must have heard me. This piece by him appeared in ‘The Times’ the following day:

Times Articles Inspired by My BoD Speech (2)

If there is any doubt, here is the text of an e-mail I wrote to a number of my right-thinking fellow Deputies on 4th October, which I later condensed into my question:

Dear Friends,

I thought I’d just fly a kite in the run-up to the next BoD meeting.

Have any of you, like me, been frustrated and irritated by our communal leadership’s predilection for endlessly running after Muslim ‘community leaders’ in this country in the name of inter-faith?

It seems that the more they condemn Israel and become entrenched in their opposition to it as a Jewish state, the more our leaders tie themselves in knots and bend over backwards to try to appease them.

They emphasise our shared commitment to ritual male circumcision and religious slaughter, as if that somehow outweighs the standard Muslim narrative of ‘Death to Israel’.

How about a different approach?

Instead of making up to the MCB and the self-styled mainstream majority spokesmen for British Muslims, why don’t we cultivate those minority groups and voices within the ummah that are neutral or tolerant towards Israel?

There are nearly 3 million Muslims in Britain: don’t tell me that there aren’t a few tens, even hundreds of thousands who are happy to live & let live, and are only stopped from expressing themselves by fear of opposition or worse from the majority leaders.

How difficult would it be for us to work with (say) DCLG, Eric Pickles and the Quilliam Foundation to empower these neutral voices at the expense of the Islamists?

I’m thinking in terms of Ahmadiyya, Sufis and Ismailis; many of you will know others.

Or am I on to a total loser here?

Beaten Slave Time Ends!

Don’t forget, at 02:00 on Sunday 25th October, Beaten Slave Time ends and God’s Mellow Time begins. BST was invented in 1907 by an evil slave-driver called William Willett. He always awoke at dawn, feeling bright and full of beans, as do all vile swine, and straight away started hatching plots to further oppress his wretched wage-slaves, bitterly regretting that serfdom had been abolished. One morning he was riding out at dawn – no servile labour for him! – and became enraged at seeing the shuttered windows behind which his employees were sleeping, possibly having enjoyed social activities or even – horror! – sexual intercourse with their spouse the night before. How dare they sleep when there was enough light in the sky for them to start making him more money!
So he published a pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight”, pushing for the clocks to be put back in the summer.
Fortunately his father the Devil haled him off to a suitably early grave in 1915 at the age of 58, so he was deprived of seeing his perverted scheme being written into English law the following year. Let us hope he is roasting for all eternity, having his foreskin constantly punched by a red-hot time clock!

Must Read

I’ve just finished reading ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ by Jared Diamond. There are some books – and here I’m talking only about non-fiction – that, after you’ve read them, you see life from a completely fresh perspective. Nothing seems quite the same again: the book has raised you to the next level. This is one such book.
In the same category I would put:

‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ by Karl Popper
‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins
‘The Holocaust’ by Martin Gilbert
‘The Whisperers’ by Orlando Figes
‘The Human Touch’ by Michael Frayn
‘Playpower’ by Richard Neville

What are your non-fiction choices?

‘Unchosen’ by Julie Burchill – Book Review

‘Unchosen’ by Julie Burchill is one of those delightful books that you devour like an addictive guilty pleasure. Like a whole pint tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy, I picked it up intending to read a chapter before going to sleep, and before I knew where I was it was 2:30 am and I’d scarfed down the lot.
Critics may sneer that no commercial publisher would touch ‘Unchosen’ because it reads like a magazine article self-indulgently over-loaded until it topples over. They can fuck right off.
In language that is often intemperate but never half-arsed, Julie chronicles her abiding love of the Jewish people and everything about us, a love to which she has stayed faithful for over 40 years.
What I like about Julie’s approach is that she doesn’t go a bundle on the Jewish clichés – humour, chicken soup, family warmth etc. As she says: “The things I love about the Jews are the REAL things about them, the things that make lots of people uncomfortable and uncomprehending – their religion, their language and their ancient, re-claimed country.” To a large extent, the book is not so much the memoirs of a philosemite as of an anti-antsemite. Never dull, the book becomes absolutely turbocharged when ripping a new one for antisemites, mealy-mouthed antisemites masquerading as anti-Zionists, and – a species which puzzles and disturbs her as much as it does me – the self-hating Jews so memorably rubbished as ‘ASHamed Jews’ in Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’.
There is so much with which I feel an instinctive kinship here. Like me, Julie despises the way that people of our generation and older paint themselves as ‘young’ and positively revels at having been born in the middle years of the last century. And I thought I was the only one who wanted to say to Muslim couples on Edgware Road: “Your wife is dressed so modestly – why are you got up like a little whore?” I also have a Bristol connection. In Chapter 2 Julie gives a well-researched history of the Jews in Bristol, including a fascinating glimpse into the tiny 16th-century community – the only one outside London between 1290 and 1660. What she doesn’t mention is my maternal grandmother’s family – Millet(t) – who, after a couple of years struggling, first in London and then in Dublin, found their feet in Bristol and from 1891 expanded from there to found the nationwide chains of Millet(t)s clothing & camping shops. Within three generations they’d managed to churn out several captains of industry – and a Law Lord.
I can also see why conversion – especially to Liberal Judaism – wouldn’t be for her. People brought up in Christian (and Muslim) traditions, where all the drive is to convert unbelievers, can’t grasp why we Jews make it so damn difficult. That’s because so many prospective converts to Judaism are just fucking Walts.
Let me explain. In the British Army, some of the greatest contempt is reserved for men who have never served their country but try to pass themselves off in the pub as veterans who served in 2 Para in the Falklands. This is how so many converts come across to us born Jews. They haven’t earned their chops. Even people like me who’ve led easy, comfortable middle-class lives have encountered ingrained, unthinking low-level casual antisemitism from early childhood. You’ve been spared that. The idea that anyone could try out being Jewish for a bit and then jack it in when they get tired of it is sickening. That’s why most Jews only really respect Orthodox Jewish converts. In Orthodoxy it is held that, when somebody genuinely converts to Judaism, they actually become a new person, and their previous persona is no more. It takes at least two years to get started, and carries on for a lifetime.
For me – and I suspect for Julie – Liberal & Progressive Judaism embodies the worst of both worlds. You have to turn the other cheek and be exaggeratedly right-on like a trendy C of E vicar, but you’re still part of the minority called Jew that has to know its place as only 0.5% of the population. You don’t even get the feeling of specialness that comes with learning Hebrew, because all the prayers are in anodyne New Revised English. What would suit Julie best would be ‘Jews on Bikes’ Judaism – eat & drink what you like, but if anyone has a go at Israel, clean their clock for them.
I only have one caveat – yes, I know, there’s always bloody something, isn’t there? We Jews are always a little nervous of gentiles who loudly proclaim their philosemitism. We’ve had too much experience of people like Tony Benn who were passionate Zionists when Israel looked like being strangled in its cradle, but as soon as it showed it could stick up for itself went over to the other side on the morally bankrupt principle that the underdog must always be right. At first I thought Hadley Freeman’s article in ‘The Guardian’ expressing her worries about Julie Burchill’s philosemitism was risibly masochistic; but, after reading ‘Unchosen’, reluctantly I have to concede she may have the faintest whisper of a point. Listen to Julie Burchill in Chapter 7: “If the man in the street can often become anti-Semitic because he fails to shine in comparison with this endlessly persecuted yet ceaselessly achieving group, how much more must the man on campus get even more paranoid as he sees the Jews do effortlessly what he must burn the midnight oil to do…”; and in Chapter 3: “It’s weird when you meet your first dumb Jew – like meeting a gay man who can’t dance –and I’ve never gotten used to it, right to this day.” Personally I bridle at the expectation of being homo superior. Well I do now that I’m old and tired. But it did get me laid once or twice when I was young, so on balance it was worth it.
Julie Burchill has a visceral understanding of Jews that many people, including many sympathetic to Jews, Judaism & Israel, just don’t get. There are insights and perspectives on la condition Anglo-Juive in this book that you will not find elsewhere. Read it.