Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Peter Beinart: The Crisis of Zionism - A Review

After reading and reviewing the wonderfully optimistic book Start-Up Nation, I decided to "balance" it by reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is a self-described liberal Zionist with a serious interest in Judaism and in the future of Israel. His book is an attack on Israeli policies with respect to the disputed territories and a call for action in the form of a boycott of West Bank products. Unlike other members of the anti-Israel left, Beinart calls for those boycotting West Bank products to make an equally vigorous effort to buy products and patronize companies from within Israel's "green line." This, he proposes, is intended to offset the idea that boycotting the West Bank is "anti-Israel."

Beinart's book is well written and interesting but ultimately, somewhat flawed. His view of Israel's role in its ongoing dispute with the Palestinians is either naive or willfully blind in that he seems to place the blame for just about everything squarely on Israel's shoulders. There is little discussion in the book of Palestinian extremism, nor is there any real discussion of a legitimate compromise proposal for ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Moreover, throughout the book, Palestinian acts of terrorism are minimized or downplayed. Beinart even finds a way to blame the failure of Camp David and the subsequent 2nd Intifada on Israel, even though he concedes that Arafat does not even appear to have made a genuine counter-proposal in response to the huge concessions that were proposed by the Israelis. Nevertheless, Beinart's focus on the urgent need to reach a peace deal with a two state solution is intended to benefit Palestinians and Israelis and is laudable.

His chapter entitled "The Crisis in Israel," focuses on the discrepancy between Israeli democracy and equality of rights within the "green line" area and the current situation in the disputed territories. There is nothing new here about the idea that Israel is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in trying to reconcile the idea of a "Jewish State" with the goal of a liberal, democratic State, while trying to find a way to resolve the issue of the territories. The current status quo threatens not only the lives and living conditions of the Palestinians but also threatens Israel's condition as a viable liberal democracy. It is hard to disagree with this part of Beinart's analysis and many Israelis, on the left and in the centre of the Israeli political landscape would agree.

Beinart then switches over to the United States, where he paints a grim picture of American Jewry. Characterizing the vast majority of Jews as liberal democrats, Beinart rails against "America's major Jewish organizations" as having lurched to the right. A particular focus of his attacks is Abe Foxman, National Director of the ADL, who is "beholden to no one but the philanthropic dollar." Beinart attacks the ADL and the AJC (American Jewish Committee) for supporting the policies of the Israeli government and for failing to "challenge the occupation." He even manages to defend former President Jimmy Carter, despite the overwhelming evidence that Allan Dershowitz has put forward with respect to Carter's ill-will towards Israel.

In a chapter entitled "Is the Occupation Israel's Fault?," Beinart minimizes the security threat to Israel that an immediate withdrawal from the territories would entail by arguing that Israel is already within rocket range of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. He suggests that Israel should rely on its "credible deterrent." Of course, this is not been a great success with respect to Gaza from which Israel has faced numerous rocket attacks after withdrawing its forces. Beinart then runs through the peace deals offered by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert and concludes that these offers were rightly rejected by the Palestinians as insufficient, even though, he concedes, "there is a dispute about whether Arafat made any offer at all." While there were (and still are) clearly disputed issues, including the future of Jerusalem (in particular the Temple Mount), the issue of Palestinian refugees and the exact nature of the land swap envisioned, Beinart seems to suggest that Israel should have fully conceded its position on each of these issues. Moreover, despite the fact that the issue of "land swaps" was supposedly negotiated down to a difference of 4% of the total area of the West Bank (the Israelis proposing to keep 6% and the Palestinians proposing 2%), Beinart also lays the blame for this failure on the Israeli side. From Beinart's viewpoint, the dispute comes down to the disputed West Bank city of Ariel, which Israel refused to agree to dismantle.

Beinart goes on to describe subsequent events when former President Bill Clinton outlined parameters that "went well beyond Barak's proposal at Camp David": "Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters in principle, but then offered reservations that rendered his acceptance virtually meaningless." Beinart paints former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza as part of a "hidden agenda" to allow Israel to continue to hold the rest of the West Bank. By way of contrast, on the Palestinian side, even Hamas gets off lightly. Its charter, calling for Israel's destruction is downplayed and Beinart justifies Hamas' decision to fire missiles into Israel. Again, he concedes that "Hamas had been killing Israelis since the 1990s," but somehow makes the case that if Israel had just lifted its blockade against Hamas and ceased any attacks (including retaliatory attacks), everything would have been wonderful and the Hamas rocket attacks would have ceased. None of this is intended, on my part, to argue that the situation in Gaza is very good. However, I think it is fair to say that if the Palestinian leadership took a different tactic following Israel's unilateral withdrawal, there could have been significant economic cooperation between Israel and Gaza that would have greatly improved the situation for Gaza's Palestinians. Instead, Gaza's leadership focused on amassing weapons, firing rockets and public relations exercises instead of working towards an arrangement with Israel that would have ameliorated conditions for Gazans.

In a chapter entitled "the Jewish President," Beinart reviews President Obama's credentials as a liberal, philo-Semitic president, whose own daughters attended a Solomon Schecter Day School in the Chicago era. Describing Obama as having been influenced by the late influential Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.), Beinart also describes the connection between Rabbi Arnold Wolf of Chicago's Temple Solel, who was one of Obama's "earliest and most prominent supporters." Overall, Beinart describes Obama as sharing a liberal Zionist view of Israel with a range of influential Jewish friends. According to Beinart's description, this would include pressuring Israel to make concessions with respect to the occupied territories, but in the name of preserving a liberal Zionist vision of Israel rather than as a way of attacking Israel.

As much as Obama is described in the book as a supporter of everything that is good about Israel, Netanyahu is no doubt, in Beinart's view, the devil incarnate. Describing Netanyahu as an heir to the chauvinistic Jabotinsky school of right wing Zionism, Beinart traces Netanyahu's political lineage from Jabotinsky to Benzion Netanyahu (Prime Minister Netanyahu's late father) to Netanyahu himself. Along the way, he suggests that Netanyahu is a racist, advocates a policy of physically transferring Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank, and sprinkles in selective quotes from Netanyahu's 1993 book, A Place Among Nations, and its 2000 reprint, A Durable Peace. Overall he describes Netanyahu as a monist Zionist, who "subordinates external moral considerations to Zionism itself." He also reviews Netanyahu's close connections with AIPAC and wonders about the source of Netanyahu's electoral campaign funding. While Beinart may ultimately be accurate in his description of Netanyahu's reluctance to agree to the type of peace deal that Netanyahu's predecessors were being pressured to sign (if only the Palestinians would have also agreed), Beinart omits the massive swing in Israeli popular sentiment that followed the collapse of the peace talks and the onset of a new wave of violence. In a sense, Beinart's book advocates boycotting Netanyahu as much as any given policy. Ultimately, with the recent change to Netanyahu's coalition to now include the Kadima party, it remains to be seen whether there is any accuracy to Beinart's description.

Beinart's antipathy towards Netanyahu comes through even more clearly as Beinart describes the public clashes between President Obama and Netanyahu. Noting that Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 Presidential election, Beinart argues that he and many others were hopeful that Obama could lead a shift in U.S. policy to bolster the liberal Zionist vision of Israel that they shared and bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the territories. But Beinart goes on to describe a series of confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu and concludes that Obama was completely "humbled" as a result of pressure from AIPAC and other powerful, sometimes unnamed, Jewish and fundamentalist Christian sources. Ultimately, Obama was forced, as Beinart describes it, to back down from insisting on a complete settlement freeze and was publicly embarrassed and humiliated in the process. Of course, another possibility is that Obama began to rethink some of his policies with respect to Israel but that wouldn't fit too well with Beinart's thesis.

Beinart's chapter on the future of American Jewry hits closer to home since his description is also somewhat applicable to Canadian Jewry - and even Israeli Jewry. Jewish families who send their children to Jewish day schools are the ones who are continuing to carry on Jewish traditions and minimize the likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation. These families, especially in the United States, but in other areas as well are predominantly Orthodox. This means, in Beinart's view, that the number of actively involved, liberal, non-Orthodox Jews is steadily declining, relative to the overall population of committed Jews. Since these liberal Jews are the people who would share Beinart's view of a liberal Israel, their influence is steadily waning in the Jewish community. I have to note that this is also the case in Israel, which provides full state support for Orthodox schools but does not have a sufficient number of liberal, Jewish schools in which children can learn about and practice liberal Judaism. For Beinart, the net result is a prediction that the major American Jewish organizations will come to be dominated increasingly by Orthodox Jews with an illiberal agenda. This type of change is also occurring in Israel and has led to many different challenges pitting Orthodox Jews against others who advocate an egalitarian, democratic agenda. The ultimate result, if Israel does not save itself now, according to Beinart, would be a lurch towards a non-liberal version of Jewish Zionism at the expense of the liberal Zionist vision that many of the founders of Israel originally shared, and which included principles of democracy and equality for all Israeli citizens.

Beinart's solution to all of this is to propose a modified version of the "Boycott, Divest from and Sanction" ("BDS") campaign. He calls for people to refer to Israel as being divided into two parts - "democratic Israel" and "non-democratic Israel." He also calls for a boycott of settlers and their products while tempering that with an "equally vigorous embrace of the people and products of democratic Israel." He proposes that East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights not be included in the definition of "non-democratic Israel" since the Palestinians in those areas can actually obtain full Israeli citizenship.

If the only existential issue that Israel faced was dealing with the territories, Beinart's analysis might make some sense. But he dramatically minimizes that true existential threats to Israel. He barely mentions the 2006 war with Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear threat, the ongoing missile attacks from Gaza and the other threats that Israel faces. In short, he has a very rosy picture of how Israel might defend itself from attacks that would emanate from very close range following a full withdrawal from the territories. Moreover, given the fact that he has shifted the blame for the failure to reach a peace deal to Israel, almost entirely, he implicitly absolves the world from the need to pressure the Palestinians equally.

With the two sides, according to Beinart, having come as close to a deal as he describes, one would think that it would make sense to pressure both sides. For example, it seems quite unrealistic to expect that Israel will accept a "right to return" for the Palestinian refugees. Most Jews living in surrounding Arab countries left or were expelled following the establishment of Israel. Moreover, one state was designated as a Jewish state and the other as a Palestinian state. Sure, the Palestinian state should be entitled to offer an unlimited right of return for Palestinians from anywhere in the world who wish to return to the area and live in the Palestinian state. But to this point, even as Beinart describes it, the Palestinians appear to be demanding the right to have refugees return to and live in Israel, while having a Palestinian state that is virtually, if not completely, free of Jews.

Many in Israel, on the left and even the centre of the political spectrum will agree with Beinart's overriding thesis that Israel cannot continue as a liberal democratic country without reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. And many would like to see that deal concluded as soon as possible and believe that Israel should be willing to make significant concessions to reach a deal. Yet many in Israel, even those on the centre and the left, have real concerns, based on experience from the last go-round, that the Palestinians are not prepared or are not politically able to make corresponding concessions that will be required to reach a deal. The central flaw of Beinart's book is that he downplays this possibility and places virtually all of the blame on Israel, which allows him to advocate joining the BDS crowd, with a modifying twist. A more balanced recount of historical events might have led Beinart to advocate pressuring (or boycotting) both sides in an effort to reach a lasting deal.

Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle

Many of the readers of this blog may have already read Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” since it was released in 2009. By I only had the chance to read it recently, and I thought I would add some short comments to my blog.

Written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation is an essay-style book about the factors that have led to Israeli success, primarily in the high tech area. It is a fairly quick read, filled with interesting facts and information. The authors interviewed quite a number of people in putting together their report-style work, including Israeli business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and others.

Senor and Singer run through some of the aspects of Israeli society that have contributed to Israel’s unique success in some high tech areas. They highlight the mandatory military service that all Israelis are required to perform and write extensively about the positive benefits of that service. In particular, they highlight Israeli military culture, which is much “flatter” and less hierarchical than most other militaries. According to Senor and Singer, Israeli recruits and serving members of the armed forces have a great deal of independence and autonomy. They are encouraged to question their superiors and make crucial decisions themselves. Unlike the U.S. slogan of “salute the rank, not the person,” Israeli soldiers are taught to pay more attention to the decisions the person is making. This culture of individual responsibility and questioning of authority continues after military service into workplaces across the country. A CEO might face abrupt questioning from a very junior employee and that is viewed as very helpful for corporate development.

The authors also discuss a number of other factors including the impact of massive immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia; the adaptation of technology from the military to the private sector in so many areas; the participation by the government and government-related organizations in funding start-up business; a sea change in the way the Israeli government has regulated economic policy in Israel since the mid ‘90s; and a general cultural idea that it is okay to fail in business – the first time or even the first few times.

Along the way, a fascinating history of Israel’s economic development is presented. This is not an all-encompassing look at the history of Israel nor is it a political essay. The authors briefly touch on the need to address issues involving Israeli-Palestinian tensions, secular-religious tensions and other issues that might threaten the continued success of Israel’s economy. But above all, this is an optimistic and fascinating look at the massive growth of the Israeli economy – with an effort to suggest how some other countries might emulate some of Israel’s key strategies.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Delectable Lie: A Liberal Repudiation of Multiculturalism by Salim Mansur - Review

Is multiculturalism in a liberal democratic country a flawed policy? Salim Mansur makes that argument in his recent book Delectable Lie: A Liberal Repudiation of Multiculturalism. The book is thought provoking and contains a considered review of the works of many different writers and thinkers in a broad range of disciplines, including, primarily, philosophers and political scientists. Ultimately, however, the attack fails unless you accept Mansur’s definition of multiculturalism. Otherwise, Mansur’s book can be read as sounding the warning bell about a number of different issues that justifiably need to be addressed. But if the reader does not accept Mansur’s initial all-encompassing definition of multiculturalism, the rest of Mansur’s argument falls short.

Mansur begins with a definition of multiculturalism as the idea that “all cultures are equal and deserving of equal treatment in a liberal democracy.” With this definition, he asserts that multicultural societies, by definition, accept that any practice, by any cultural group, should be protected and promoted. He further claims that multiculturalism “assaults liberal democracy” by recognizing group identity and by causing the country to adapt to the requirements and values of other cultural groups. If this is what multiculturalism really meant, then perhaps Mansur might be right. But I do not believe that most inhabitants of multicultural countries really believe that this is a correct summary of a multicultural mission statement.

Mansur’s primary argument is that individual freedom is the primary hallmark of a truly free society and that any imposition of equality rights cuts into true “freedom.” Perhaps tellingly, he starts with the idea that “all men are created equal.” So who is really free under that vision of freedom? Men only? White men only? Struggling to get around this problem, he posits a “correction” to this liberal theory and notes that both the emancipation of women and the elimination of slavery and black/white discrimination were “corrections” to the principle of liberty that was defined originally but had otherwise fallen somewhat short.

In providing a list of truly free countries in the world today, Mansur includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, countries of Western Europe and Israel. What makes these countries so free? On the one hand, Mansur is correct that they value fundamental freedoms including freedom of speech, religion, a free judiciary and other freedoms. On the other hand, these countries also aim to protect and promote equality, including equality of opportunity, regardless of skin colour, gender, religious or cultural heritage, background or other characteristics. In some ways, it can be argued that these countries are truly “free” because they are multicultural. Anyone, regardless of his or her religious or cultural background, gender, colour or other personal characteristics, whether shared with a group or not, can participate equally in a truly free society.

Interestingly, Mansur includes a quote from the late former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau citing one of the purposes of multiculturalism:

“to assist members of all cultural groups to overcame barriers to full participation in Canadian society”

This does not really seem that objectionable. Yet Mansur argues that the recognition of the importance of any group or collective rights is “flawed.” Does that mean that all minority religious practices should be banned? Mansur does not propose this, though it might be the logical conclusion to his line of argument.

As the book develops, Mansur turns his attention to those who would take advantage of multiculturalism and use it to destroy a multicultural society. He argues that “host countries in the West readily provide welfare to those, such as radical Muslim priests and Islamists who brazenly ridicule and preach hatred for liberal democracy and the culture of freedom that separates the West from the cultures of the East and, in particular, the world of Islam.” This is certainly an issue that all of the “free” countries listed by Mansur must grapple with, especially those with significant immigrant populations. However, it is not answered by the idea that free countries should simply eliminate their tolerance of different minority practices. Countries like Canada can and do draw lines, even where the placement of the line is contentious.

Mansur discusses the paramount nature of free speech in a democratic country with references to various writers from Mills to Rawls. In discussing some of the threats to free speech and the abuses of it, Mansur writes about the “insidious threats” that freedom of speech faces. Specifically he refers to the 2007 U.N. resolution to combat the “defamation of religion” and prohibit “blasphemy.” Or the Danish cartoon incidents. Or the fatwas over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. He also cites the trial of Geert Wilder for his documentary Fitna, the human rights commissions’ battles involving Ezra Levant and the use of human rights legislation and mechanisms by the Canadian Islamic Congress to attack Mark Steyn’s writing.

These are all frightening examples of the use of free speech or limitations on free speech by those who would limit many other freedoms. But this is not a general problem of multiculturalism, which strives to accept a range of diverse cultural practices within a liberal democracy. These are extreme threats. To fight these threats does not mean that countries must abandon multiculturalism.

Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have issued decisions in a number of areas that support multiculturalism. To name a few, Canadian courts have permitted observant Jews to put up Sukkoth (temporary huts) during the festival of Sukkoth in condominium units that prohibit balcony structures; they have permitted Sikhs to wear turbans as police officers; they have upheld the right of seventh day Adventists and other Sabbath observers not to work on their Sabbath. There are many other examples. All of these decisions would likely be viewed by Mansur as promoting and supporting multiculturalism. Yet, they are aimed at ensuring that Canadians from different backgrounds can participate fully in society. There is nothing “insidious” about that.

Mansur’s real target is fundamentalist Islam, not multiculturalism, though he disguises it. He attacks the “root cause” apologists for 9/11 such as Noam Chomsky and Linda McQuaig, who he argues “shift responsibility for the Islamist terrorists to the socio-economics of capitalist-imperialism.” He cites Muslim authors who call for Jihad and rail against certain western values like gender equality. He attacks Sharia law and the possibility of any western countries incorporating components of Sharia law into their systems and the dangers that might present. “Espousing acceptance of other cultures, irrespective of how such acceptance diminishes liberal democracy’s unique set of values” will destroy liberal democracies, he argues. Mansur is certainly correct that many tenets of Islam, as he describes it, such as gender inequality, Jihad, and discriminatory treatment of non-Muslims clash with liberal democratic values. But that does not lead to the conclusion that free countries should simply become intolerant of Muslims or of all Muslim practices.

Along the way, Mansur denounces dual citizens, liberal academics who blame the west for the state of the less developed non-European countries and any restrictions on free speech. But he backtracks slightly at the end of his book, arguing that there is no basis for ethnocentric prejudice by the majority population and no need to reject the cultural norms of their minorities. However, if any such practices collide with the core values of a liberal democracy then that aspect needs to be reformed or rejected accordingly. Mansur does not explain what he would do about the practices or beliefs of the Catholic Church, many Christian fundamentalist groups or others who would not accept his self-defined “core values of a liberal democracy.”

Ultimately, while Mansur demonstrates convincingly that free countries must carefully consider where they draw the line over which cultural practices to accept and which to prohibit, he fails to prove that countries should simply adopt intolerance of multiculturalism as the only appropriate means of remaining free.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman - A Review

I had the chance to read Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman recently. This autobiographical memoir tells the story of a woman growing up in the ultra-orthodox Satmar Chassidic community in Williamsburg, New York and her eventual escape from that community.

Feldman's book is a fairly quick read. The prose is fairly simple and at times choppy. It is written in a first person, present tense style, so that events that occurred many years ago are described as though they are current events.

On hearing about the book, I was quite interested to read it. I came away with a bit more of a mixed feeling.

On the one hand, I was quite moved by Feldman's vivid description of the oppressive nature of Satmar society, particularly with respect to women. The book is filled with incidents throughout Feldman's childhood that demonstrate the ways in which women and their aspirations are suppressed. From a very young age, it is only boys that are introduced to and taught to learn from high level Jewish religious texts. Through the use of Tzniut ("modesty") rules, girls are kept covered up and hidden away. Even their voices are not to be heard in public. Decisions are made for them throughout their lives. Feldman describes how she was transferred from the rules of her grandfather (she was living with her grandparents) to a husband who was selected for her and to a hope that her new husband would not be too "strict."

There is a description of a Simchat Torah celebration that I felt was particularly poignant. All of the women are up in the balcony waiting to watch, through a small slat, as the Satmar Rebbe enters the synagogue and dances the Torah. The women are confined to the role of outsiders and do not really participate in the celebration other than as spectators. Sadly, this is not only case in Satmar communities but applies to most other Orthodox religious institutions. In fact, a friend of mine was telling me about her celebration of Simchat Torah a couple of years ago in an Orthodox shul and she described it in a very similar way.

Feldman also devotes much of her book to her feelings of being an outsider. Inspired by the writings of authors such as Roald Dahl, in particular his book Matilda, as well as a range of other books, Feldman describes her resistance to accepting everything that she was being taught. I could really relate to this theme of the book, as Feldman, the self-described trouble maker, rails against abuses of authority, whether by teachers, or other authority figures. She applies this not only to questioning the gender discrimination aspects of Satmar society that are mandated, but other rules and issues and even the very existence of God, or at least the nature of God and the truth of many of the rules that have been instilled as God given law. This is very rebellious for a girl in an ultra-religious school.

A great deal of time is also spent discussing sexuality. Feldman describes the suppressive rules that are maintained throughout adolesence and then she provides a very detailed account of very personal experiences including her first time in the Mikvah (ritual bath), her wedding night and her own experiences with her husband. I began to wonder whether there was too much information here and how difficult it must be for her ex-husband to see so much written about his intimate life with his former wife published in this type of book.

There is an unpolished, at times juvenile feel to the book, written by an author who is not yet 25, presenting an autobiography. The book, as one might expect, has generated a great deal of controversy. Some have asserted that chunks of the book are fabricated or fictitious. Someone has even created a website dedicated to attacking parts of the book ( Feldman's introductory remarks do not dispel concerns a reader might have that the events in the book may not have occurred. A sense of credibility and authenticity slowly melts away as the book progresses. Towards the end of the book Feldman describes herself, now having taken up smoking, sitting in a non-Kosher restaurant and eating all of the foods that were previously forbidden to her by the rules of Kashrut. Yes, she has fully rebelled, but I couldn't help but feel a certain lack of credibility or feel that a humility of purpose had been compromised by the end of the book. As a result, the later parts of the book resonated less with me and caused me to wonder about some of the earlier parts.

Overall, however, I think the theme of the suppression of women that Feldman describes is genuine, whether or not every aspect of the book is factual. Israel has been wrestling with this issue in its ultra-orthodox communities as I have described in a number of other blog articles. Gender discrimination is an issue that even squarely challenges mainstream Orthdox Judaism, a religion that continues to insist on gender-based rules while most other aspects of liberal democratic societies have moved or are moving towards gender equality. I have also written about this in many other blog articles and perhaps that is why I was so drawn to reading the book.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef - A Review

Mosab Hassan Yousef is a former Hamas member who began working for Israel while living in Ramallah. He eventually converted to Christianity and left Israel to seek political asylum in the United States. He is now living in California.

Yousef's book Son of Hamas is an autobiographical account of his life growing up in Ramallah. Yousef's father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, was one of the founders of Hamas. Yousef, the oldest child, with five brothers and three sisters, traces his life growing up in Ramallah. He provides a detailed discussion of a very observant Muslim lifestyle in which he was raised. His book, written years after these events, is highly critical of Islam and, in particular, as Yousef sees it, of the propensity for violence that is taught and expected of children, even from a very young age.

Arrested as early as age 10 by Israelis for throwing rocks at settlers, Yousef became increasingly radicalized as he grew older. He was arrested by age 18 after purchasing guns that he intended to use in some type of operation against Israelis. During the first part of the book, he is highly critical of Israel and of the manner in which Israel treated his community. He justifies his early activities and details his arrest and alleged abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers and officials.

As the book progresses, Yousef details the increasingly violent and dangerous escalation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians between 1986 and 1997. He begins to question some of the Palestinian tactics and is particularly upset at the Palestinian decision to support Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. He details the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the PLO leadership and Arafat and describes how Arafat, in particular, was concerned more with lining his pockets than of advancing the cause of the Palestinians. He writes about the PLO's covert but direct support for terrorist attacks against Israel, even while the PLO was publicly renouncing violence. And he describes the horrific Hamas suicide bombing attacks that were carried out in Israel, killing large groups of civilians.

Yousef's father was in and out of Israeli prisons for his own role in inciting or participating in terrorist activities. Yousef himself was a senior member of Hamas. Yousef claims that he began to have doubts about Islam and about Hamas as he watched Hamas carry out these horrible attacks against civilians. He was also troubled by Hamas' brutal vigilante justice against any perceived traitors, many of whom were often innocent.

Yousef claims that in 1997, he agreed to work for the Shin Bet, and become an informant. Known secretly as the "Green Prince," Yousef details how he provided information to Israel that led to the prevention of suicide bombings and assassination attempts. He claims that he provided information to Israelis only if they agreed to arrest rather than kill those about whom he provided information. According to Yousef's account, he seems to have been instrumental in almost every single Israeli counter-terrorism operation between 1997 and 2005. One gets the sense that his account is somewhat exaggerated. Yet he claims it was all with the goal of reducing violence in the region and had nothing to do with the significant sums of money he was paid.

By 2000, Yousef, had been introduced to Christianity, to which he converted by 2005. In the process of converting and ultimately revealing his collaboration with Israel, Yousef's father disowned him. Yousef was eventually granted political asylum in the United States, with the evidentiary support in court of the Shin Bet agent who had worked with him over a number of years while he was in Ramallah and with whom he remained friends after these events. Much of the later part of Yousef's book is filled with his description of the oversimplified version of Christian religious dogma that he came to accept and embrace.

Yousef's story is an interesting one and there is certainly a great deal of information of about Hamas, its activities and the activities of the PLO that make for fascinating reading. It is at times highly critical of Israel and challenges Islam repeatedly. The earlier sections of the book provide a thoughtful description and Palestinian viewpoint of day to day life in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At the same time, something just doesn't sit right about Yousef's account.

At times, he appears to suggest that his activities were all related to his conversion to Christianity. He finally saw the light and decided to adopt non-violence as a political viewpoint. According to Yousef, it seems, if all of the Jews and Muslims would simply convert to Christianity, there would be peace across the Middle East. Of course that doesn't sound very realistic. One wonders if Yousef's change, and his eventual conversion, has much more to do with finding a way to escape from his overbearing, fanatically religious father.

Certainly, Yousef's story is not a model for bringing peace to the region. One would hope that Muslims and Jews, without the fanciful prerequisite of being required to renounce their families and religious affiliations, could find ways to sit down and negotiate a peaceful co-existence. Maybe this is just as a unlikely as Yousef's proposed solution, but we have to remain optimistic.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The God Who Hates Lies by David Hartman - A Discussion

I spent Shabbat appropriately by reading David Hartman’s latest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition. Hartman, who recently turned 80, is an Orthodox Rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971 and founded the Shalom Hartman Institute. He moved from Montreal where he had been serving as the Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation. The Shalom Hartman Institute is self-described as a “center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.” One of Hartman’s sons, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the current president of the Institute. Hartman’s daughter, Tova, is one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.

The God Who Hates Lies is partly an autobiographical spiritual journey tracing the time that Hartman spent in Orthodox Yeshivas growing up to his experiences as a pulpit Rabbi. But the book then turns to Hartman’s development of his own theological outlook. Exposed to a range of ideas at Fordham University and Yeshiva University, Hartman began to contemplate how to reconcile the traditional view of revelatory halakha (Jewish law) with the realities of a modern world, while still within an Orthodox Jewish framework. Three particular issues seem to have caught his attention.

The first is the issue of gender equality in Judaism, brought to his consciousness most dramatically by his daughter. “A persistent, committed and sharply insightful evaluation of how these issues were treated by much of the halakhic and Orthodox theological world revealed to me how inadequate the tradition had been in dealing with such a fundamental challenge.” Hartman concludes that he could not justify the continued Orthodox exclusion of women from a minyan (from being counted as part of the 10 person quorum required for Jewish prayer). How can a woman, for example, who is trusted in the courtroom or the hospital, or any other profession or occupation in society at large, be treated with the same status limitations as a child or a slave in the synagogue?

Hartman’s second area of concern relates to the interaction with the non-Jewish world and with traditional Orthodox views of non-observant and secular Jews, non-Jews and would be converts. As in the case with gender equality issues, Hartman challenges the traditional Orthodox notions of interaction in these areas.

Thirdly, Hartman seeks to reposition the centrality of the role of the State of Israel as a key aspect of the rebirth of the Jewish people and with a dynamic and changing role in the development of halakha in a vibrant way that is not stagnant and mired in the past. His book is particularly scornful of ultra-religious (Haredi) communities which are anti-Zionist, refuse to serve in the army, participate in the development of the State and contribute to the economic well-being of Israel. He views their interpretation of Jewish law as unchanging, divinely revealed and impervious to the outside world as fundamentally dangerous to the growth and development of the Jewish people over the long term.

The book addresses each of these areas in some detail. It canvasses many of Judaism’s great thinkers and their respective views of the nature of Jewish Law. It then moves to Hartman’s view of halakha as a “communally mediated religious system dedicated to seeking God’s presence in every aspect of life,” which is defined as having different ways in which it can function. Although it can be viewed in traditional fashion, as an obligatory legal system, Hartman proposes that it can also be viewed as an educational system. In either case, Hartman arrives at certain core problems where present-day normative halakha meets moral challenges that do not appear to be answered appropriately in the modern world.

Certainly, some questions come to mind when assessing Hartman’s approach. What is the source of the morality upon which he relies to question the morality of some current halakhic difficulties? It may be tautological. Or it may be that the exposure to present day values of equality and other aspects of liberalism trump, in Hartman’s mind, some halakhic ideas that hearken back to a time of many hundreds of years earlier.

The most problematic issues that Hartman addresses relate to the role of women. Whether Hartman is discussing the plight of the aguna (a divorced Jewish woman whose ex-husband has not agreed to grant her a divorce certificate and therefore cannot remarry under Jewish law) or the halakhic failings of Jewish legal approaches to women in family life, ritual life and even public life, Hartman is not content to accept traditional Orthodox views in these areas. He discusses the historically accepted concept of gender inequality in Judaism and takes issue with various apologetic rabbis and authors who have sought to justify this inequality. He calls on the need for women to be “initiators, conquerors and builders – even of themselves” starting with their own direct access to the mechanisms of culture, the sacred tradition.

In a concluding chapter entitled “The God Who Hates Lies: Choosing Life in the Midst of Uncertainty,” Hartman speaks about the need to continue to develop the authentic Israeli public that is dealing with halakhic issues in a relevant and modern way. A quintessential Zionist, Hartman devotes much of the final chapter to a discussion of the way in which the State of Israel can and does play a central role in defining the face of the Jewish world. Hartman’s quest, as embodied by the goals of his institute is to embrace of vision of Jewish law which responds to the “shifting cultural landscapes of our ever-emerging historical drama.”

Though the book falls short in presenting concrete proposals for dealing with many of these vexing issues in a way that might be considered acceptable in Orthodox circles (that may not be possible today), it is quite an interesting read. Theologically, as some critics have maintained, it probably positions Hartman very close to Conservative Judaism but Hartman does not make that leap. For example, he does not expressly call for fully egalitarian, mixed seating prayer services in his book, which would be the logical response to the questions he poses. However, he does offer a level of respect to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations that is all too often sorely absent.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - a Review

I had the chance to read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson last week on a lengthy flight. The book doesn’t really fit this blog thematically but I figure there are a few tie-ins. For one thing, I was able to get through this 571 page book on a 12 hour Air Canada day time flight between Israel and Canada. My other tie-in is more personal. Much of the book deals with Jobs at work and the manner in which he dealt with his employees, partners, co-workers and even family members. As an employment lawyer, these are the types of issues that I regularly address so I figured that this was another reason I should write about this book.

Early on, Isaacson includes a great deal of discussion about Jobs’ rebellious and anti-authoritarian nature. Jobs loved to play practical jokes on classmates, friends and teachers. (Does this sound familiar?). One of my favourite stories is the time Jobs and some friends came up with the idea of a “bring your favourite pet to school day” and proceeded to plan and advertise it without official sanction just to create chaos at school for a day with dogs and cats chasing each other around.

As a product of the times of the late 60s and early 70s, Jobs greatly enjoyed Bob Dylan music and dropping acid (LSD). He traveled to India to visit gurus and came back to North America wandering around barefoot as a vegan and self-described “fruitarian” at times. For a while, he apparently believed that with this type of diet, he would not develop body odour and could avoid regular bathing. People around him did not agree and were forced to raise this with him.

Even though this book was an "authorized" biography, Isaacson does not bury the unsavoury aspects of Jobs’ character, particularly the way he dealt with people around him. Some of these stories resonated with me, both as an employment lawyer who often hears similar stories and as someone who has worked with these types of outrageous characters. Jobs cheated his partners and employees out of money he owed them; he publicly humiliated his employees and colleagues, calling their ideas stupid (and worse) and heaped all sorts of abuse on them. He generally treated those around him in shockingly horrible fashion with nothing but contempt reserved for those he thought of as intellectually inferior.

Yet on more than one occasion, Isaacson explains away or otherwise excuses this behaviour. He writes that Jobs’ employees understood that he was building a list of exclusively “A list” employees and that this was his way of pushing those around him to work harder and achieve more. He suggests that the employees understood this and were happy with the trade-off. Those who were not up to the task or could not put up with Jobs were dismissed or quit.

In later sections of the book, Isaacson refers to Jobs as a “magical genius.” This is a recurrent theme, echoing the quote attributed to Leo Durocher that "nice guys finish last.” In other words, Isaacson seem to back the idea that the ultimate achievements of Jobs and of Apple overshadow any indiscretions in Jobs’ conduct or treatment of others. It is not expressly stated this way by Isaacson, but Isaacson’s message comes through quite clearly. It is one of the recurrent themes of the book. Do great accomplishments excuse or justify everything else?

I found the development of Apple and the treatment of many of the historical events in Apple’s history to be quite riveting. Whether dealing with how Jobs and Apple took advantage of Xerox early on, Jobs’ role in building Pixar or how Jobs personally oversaw and negotiated key aspects of iTunes, including his personal meeting with record industry executives and celebrity artists to get the rights to music for iTunes, much of this history is quite fascinating. Jobs’ successful efforts to persuade U2, Bob Dylan and ultimately even the Beatles to permit access to their musical catalogues are interesting and at times exciting.

As the book progresses and Isaacson deals with the newer Apple technology – the iPhones and then the iPads, there is a palpable sense of awe with these products with little critical assessment. After reading these chunks of the book, I began feeling the urge to run out and get an iPad II, and maybe even an iPhone as well (I have currently been using a blackberry)(I haven't done this yet...). Isaacson seems to blindly accept Jobs’ assessment that “Android (Google's competing operating system) is crap” and that Apple is on the right track in pushing the fully integrated closed system. Although this method has greatly benefited Apple to this point, it is not clear that the continuation of this type of system will allow Apple to hold the #1 spot indefinitely over Google or other tech companies.

It seems to me that the debate is much more complicated than that described in the book. Google has made and continues to make great strides with its “open” system. The Google type system may well be doing much more for human scientific advancement and technological access than Apple even though the wide range of different Google compatible products necessarily leads to a great variation in quality.

At the outset, I hadn’t really been sure that I wanted to read this book but it had received so much publicity that I decided I had to pick it up when I saw it in Costco. I found much of it quite interesting and generally enjoyed the story. It is well written (although at times a bit choppy, reflecting the speed of at which the book was published after Jobs died). It raises a number of issues and themes for discussion including the role of art and design in technology; different methods of invention; the purpose of technology itself and how to gauge what the public needs or wants; and whether success in business overrides everything, including morality and human kindness. On this last point, there are few, if any stories throughout the book detailing acts of kindness, generosity or goodwill on Jobs' part. Particularly given Job's enormous wealth, this is quite a disappointing indictment.

As well, the books details Jobs’ very difficult and ultimately losing battle with cancer. Very personal aspects of his illness and his treatment are examined including his decision to avoid surgery when cancer was first discovered and somehow hope that he could "will it away."

Jobs’ lifelong sense of personal abandonment is analyzed and traced to the fact that he had been an adopted child. This is used as another justification for Jobs' behaviour towards others. Yet this sense of abandonment did not prevent Jobs from doing the same thing when he was 23 – fathering a child and abandoning her. For a lengthy time period, Jobs denied paternity, even after a DNA test was conducted and showed a very high likelihood that this was his daughter. Ultimately, Jobs relented and provided assistance but his overall level of interaction with this daughter was relatively low.

The book returns to the clash between the openly rebellious youth of Jobs and the kinds of things he accessed and benefited from (His early “hacking” involvement with Steve Wozniak was in creating a machine that would crack telephone company codes and allow people to make free long distance calls) to his ultimate arrival at an end-to-end series of products, presented to users as a fait accompli with little room for innovation or challenge or the kind of questioning and hacking that Jobs embraced when he was younger. The limited range of options available in Apple products and the very limited ability for users to change the devices are reflective of Jobs' desire for control over everything with which he was involved from the employees and contacts with whom he worked to the consumers who bought the products.

After having finished the book last week, reading it cover to cover on one flight, I have continued to contemplate many of the issues raised. For that, I have to credit Isaacson. He has put together a study of Jobs and of this particular Apple that comes with more than a healthy dose of “food for thought.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ethical Oil by Ezra Levant - A Review

Ezra Levant is not afraid of controversy. As an active Conservative, columnist, talk show host and political activist, Levant’s views have often ruffled feathers and generated publicity. Given his right wing outlook, and the fact that he has recently worked for one of the world’s largest tobacco corporations, one might be tempted to dismiss his views about the oil industry as self-serving propaganda. But I don’t think it’s fair to tar Levant with this broad brush without carefully considering the arguments he puts forward in his 2010 work Ethical Oil.

I read the book, subtitled “the case for Canada’s oil sands” yesterday. The book is only about 234 pages long but I found the central premise to be extremely compelling. Levant argues that any consideration of the merits of Alberta’s oil sands projects should take into account a variety of political and other considerations, rather than environmental considerations alone and should weigh these factors against other world oil suppliers and against other energy sources. When taking into account a range of factors including treatment of workers, accountability of the oil companies, operation within a legal framework, and where the profits go, Levant has little trouble concluding that the Canadian tar sands are currently the most ethical source of oil in the world. I think it is hard to argue with that conclusion.

Entitled “the very short list of democracies that sell oil,” chapter 2 of Ethical Oil reviews the world’s major oil suppliers as a list of “dictatorships, human rights abusers and warmongers.” From Saudi Arabia, described as a major sponsor of world terrorism, Levant proceeds to examine Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela and Sudan, collectively a “rogue’s gallery” of some of the “world’s worst places.” He cites a quote from Michael Besancon of the chain Whole Foods, stating that “fuel that comes from tar sands refineries does not fit our values.” He proceeds to examine that suggestion by questioning whether places like Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Nigeria better suit those Whole Foods “values.” When politicians, lobbyists and corporations like Whole Foods state a preference for Saudi or Iranian oil over tar sands oil, have they properly considered issues like the promotion of peace, human rights and equality of men and women?

Levant is not afraid to tackle the environmental impact of tar sands development. One of his arguments here is to put things into context, particularly when weighed against other energy sources, other countries (particularly China) and even other oil producing nations. He points out that Canadian technology is constantly becoming more efficient and better environmentally, whereas the other oil producing nations are causing greater and greater damage.

Chapter 8, entitled “Greenpeace’s Best Fundraiser Ever,” includes this great question: “Why do the world’s most prominent anti-oil groups focus on Canada’s oil sands but virtually ignore polluting dictatorships that are worse by any conceivable measure?” Levant uses this segue to launch an attack on the hypocrisy of Greenpeace, which rails against nuclear power across the world but is largely silent when it comes to condemnation of China – particularly through Greenpeace-China. The book provides a detailed explanation of the issues affecting Greenpeace and ties this back to the type of unfair criticism that the tar sands face as compared to other, more polluting energy sources.

Chapter 11, entitled “Saudi Arabia’s War Against the Oil Sands,” includes some fascinating tidbits. Like the fact that Saudis spent $6.6 billion in a single year in the U.S. on lobbying efforts to polish their image in Washington. Or that they contributed some $10 million to Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library (as the single biggest contributor), $10 million to George H.W. Bush’s Library and, of course, tens of millions to Jimmy Carter, who is described by Levant as a “mouthpiece for Arab foreign policy.”(This probably wouldn't be too different from a description by someone like Dershowitz). Levant also points out that the Binladin family (yes, the same Binladin family) hired Al Gore to come give lectures in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There really is something wrong with a world in which so much American and Western money continues to flow to such an obnoxious, undemocratic, terror-sponsoring regime.

Levant addresses the cost to the U.S. of securing and protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies (i.e. of defending the Saudis and other Middle Eastern countries) and juxtaposes that against the very substantial economic benefit to Canada itself (and the U.S.) of developing the oil sands. I won’t go through all of these arguments.

While it might be argued that Levant has downplayed or minimized some very real environmental damage that continued development of the tar sands would cause, the central thesis of the book is that this is one factor to be considered among a range of others. I think there is much to be said for Levant’s premise that a preference for buying oil from regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran could have much more dangerous consequences for the world – including the world’s environment and world peace – than Canada’s development of Alberta’s oil sands.

None of this is intended to prefer a long range preference for tar sands oil as the world's bright source of future energy for generations to come. But given consumption rates today and the world's massive reliance on oil, wouldn't it be better if more of the oil were to come from Canada?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Shlomo Sand: The Invention of the Jewish People

I enjoy provocative books, particularly those with viewpoints opposed to mine. After all, how better to stretch your horizons than to read a wide variety of arguments. Some accused me of being a glutton for punishment after I reviewed Michael Coren’s book – Why Catholics Are Right. But frankly, that book was so poorly argued that it was almost amusing.

Shlomo Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People, is in a completely different category. For starters, the title is so over the top, one might have thought the book was published by the Iranian Ministry of Propaganda or by Mahmoud Abbas’s historians. But since it was described as having been on the Israeli best seller list for more than 19 weeks in 2009, and having generated quite a bit of academic interest, I decided that it seemed like an interesting challenge.

Described as a work of history, the work is much more of a Chomskyesque polemic. Sand, unlike many other writers of history, does not hide the fact that the book was written with a political purpose. His goal is to delegitimize the concept of the “Jewish people.” Along the way, he aims to demonstrate that Zionism is essentially evil and racist; that the formation of the state of Israel was a “rape;” that the ongoing occupation of territory held by Israel since 1967 makes Israel an “apartheid state;” and that the only proper path forward for Israel is to create a multi-national state with no official Jewish character.

This might be enough to cause many readers to fold up the book and put it back on the table of the “Israel Apartheid Week” demonstration at York or University of Toronto during their annual week long hate fests. But I think one must read and understand many of these viewpoints and consider if and how many of Sand’s assertions can be refuted.

Given that the book spans almost 4,000 years of history, it would be quite an undertaking to check the various sources, highlight the views of opposing historians and provide a full answer to Sand. I am quite confident that a number of historians will respond in detail and those works should make for compelling reading. There have already been a number of articles which have highlighted some of Sand’s inaccuracies or liberties that he has taken. At this point, I can only provide more of a superficial review without exploring the historiography in much more detail.

But let’s look at some of the assertions.

After a lengthy discussion of how nations are made and the concept of the national myth, Sand sets out to explain why, in his view, much of Jewish history is simply fantasy. I note that the tone of the book is quite belligerent. Perhaps that keeps it interesting and makes it somewhat compelling. But Sand is full of vitriol. “Zionist,” when used to describe Israel’s intellectual founders, its historians, archaeologists, scientists and others is constantly used as a pejorative term. The Zionist world according to Sand is part of a great conspiracy in which the intellegensia in a whole range of academic fields have been conscripted into this exercise of national myth building on behalf of the Zionist enterprise to create a rationale for self-existence. Only Sand holds the truth and is sufficiently independent to expose 150 years of lies. Of course, Sand’s selective use of history, certain writers and a limited number of events are calculated fit Sand’s model, thesis and intended political conclusions. In other words, it is just as academically illegitimate as that which he accuses the “Zionists” of doing. Throughout his book, there are selective references to a limited number of works. There is little substantive discussion of “mainstream” historians other than with a very general dismissive tone. But it seems to me that this would have been the work that Sand would have had to convincingly rebut if this were genuinely a “truth-seeking enterprise.”

Beginning with the assertion that current archaeology proves that the Israelites were never enslaved in Egypt and were therefore never freed from slavery, Sand moves on to proposition that there was no united national kingdom of David and Solomon and that at best there was a “small tribal kingdom.” According to Sand, “there never was a great united monarchy and…King Solomon never had grand palaces in which he housed his 700 wives and 300 concubines.” Sand stops short of claiming that there was never actually a temple in Jerusalem (which would have put him into Arafat’s camp apparently). Perhaps, given the overwhelming archaeological evidence, Sand found that it would be too difficult, even for him, to make this suggestion.

What has drawn the significant attention and criticism of other historians is Sand’s next assertion that the exile from Jerusalem after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. is a completely invented fiction. Sand acknowledges the destruction of the first temple, in 586 B.C.E. and the resulting expulsion of the Jews from the land. Given that not all of the expelled Jews returned, this alone is a reasonable starting point for an exile that clearly occurred. Nevertheless, Sand’s focus is the Roman devastation of the first century C.E. He reduces the population of Jerusalem to 60,000 or 70,000 from Josephus’s suggested numbers in the range of one million. But he then uses the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 CE to suggest that it proves that there had not been an exile. Historians such as Simon Schama have taken issue with Sand’s efforts to downplay the effect of Roman destruction even though there is an acknowledgement by Schama that the Romans did not necessarily physically exile all of the inhabitants.

Sand then describes the spread of Judaism between the 1st and 6th centuries CE as a result of proselytization and subjugation working as a symbiosis between the Hasmoneans and Hellenism. Ultimately, he concludes that rather than being expelled, the Jews remaining in the land of Israel underwent a slow and moderate conversion process to Islam. This argument serves Sand’s later political agenda in which he suggests that the Palestinians of today are the more likely “organic descendants” of original inhabitants of the land than those Jews who claimed to have returned to Israel from an imaginary exile.

Along the way, Sand provides a short version of how the conversion of North Africans was undertaken, as well as Ethiopian Jews in the early 2nd to 4th centuries CE. Conversion also accounts for the spread of Judaism into Spain. The lynchpin of Sand’s thesis is that virtually all of the Ashkenazi Jews were descended from the conversion of the kingdom of Khazaria between the 8th and 9th centuries CE. While Sand indicates that this is accepted history, he raises the conspiratorial suggestion that since no historical work about the Khazars was conducted in Hebrew between 1951 and 2009, this was evidence of the Zionist suppression of historical truth or the search for it. Searching for evidence that all of European Jewry was descended from the Khazars, Sand cites the prevalence of the name “Kagan” or “Khazar” among Eastern Europeans. He uses the existence of the word “daven,” which he says derived from a Turkish word, to “prove” that Yiddish developed from the Khazars rather than from the bastardized German, which it so obviously appears to be.

As Sand approaches the end of his book, he touches on the issue of the Zionist use of race and concepts of ethnos to “serve the project of ethnic nationalist consolidation in the taking over of an imaginary ancient homeland.” Well, he certainly cannot be accused of mincing his ideas. Imaginary ancient homeland??? That is the essence of Sand’s overall thesis: that the Jewish people throughout the world were united by nothing other than some common religious beliefs and practices. Despite longing for Jerusalem and praying to return to it for thousands of years, the whole concept of “return to Zion” was recreated and invented by late 19th century Zionists to serve a purely political purpose and to justify moving to and conquering the land of Palestine.

Critics of Sand, such as Schama, have noted that the idea of a Jewish People has never rested solely on the idea of some genetic purity of race – which is a criticism that Sand seems to partially concede. Yet Sand’s straw man is the idea that a linear racial link can be exposed as non-existent, which will somehow destroy the notion of Jewish peoplehood – despite the thousands of years of shared religious ritual, belief, interpretation, ceremony and yes – suffering at the hands of non-Jewish oppressors.

By the end of his book, Sand sets out his purpose for writing the book. His intention was to demonstrate that since there was no such thing as a “Jewish people” there could not be a legitimate Jewish state. Moreover, a Jewish state could not co-exist with a democracy since the non-Jewish members of the state would not have “ownership” over the state as full and equal partners.

Though some of the rights bases arguments that Sand puts forward are compelling, others are venomous. Although a convincing case can be made that Israel should take marriage, burial and other personal status issues out of the hands of the Rabbinical authorities, Sand’s call for the elimination of the Jewish character of the State and the Law of Return is more problematic. Given that the raison d’etre of Israel was, in part, a safe haven for the world’s Jewish population, which is at last count, an ever declining 13 million, the suggestion that Israel should simply commit national suicide as a Jewish entity and convert itself into a straight constitutional democracy encompassing all of the Palestinians on both sides of the West Bank is simply a recipe for cultural disaster – and perhaps physical destruction as well.

But beyond that ultimate call by Sand, Sand’s various suggestions, scattered throughout his book, that all of Judaism, its Bible, its history, its peoplehood and its longing for Jerusalem are all illegitimate and historically untenable are the type of suggestions that Jews have faced throughout their history from the most pernicious anti-Semites.

I do not dispute that there is urgency to addressing the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and to finding a resolution that will address many of the issues that Sand has raised. It appears that a two state solution would be the best vehicle for accomplishing this goal – with the Palestinian state charged with the ability to institute its own “right of return” for those Palestinians or their descendants who left or were forced to leave their ancestral homeland. Perhaps, to address Sand’s other point, there will be redrawn borders such that some of those increasingly disaffected Palestinian Israelis, currently in the Galilee area will find themselves living within the boundaries of the new Palestinian state. That would be a more realistic political result, at least as a starting point, where two “imaginary peoples” can take their place among the other imaginary peoples in the world.

I found this great article about the book - that I thought I should also reference.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tarek Fatah - The Jew is Not My Enemy

Tarek Fatah’s book The Jew is Not My Enemy is subtitled “Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism.” It is a short but compelling read that delves into a problem that plagues both Jews and Muslims.

Fatah sets out to explode that myth that anti-Semitism is an integral part of Islam. Instead, he demonstrates that it has most recently been used as a political tool to focus attention on the Jews and on Israel rather than the problems and issues that Muslim nations face.

Fatah traces the historical roots of the Muslim-Jewish relationship. A self- described Muslim Indian himself, born in Pakistan, Fatah highlights the general absence of anti-Semitism throughout India and Pakistan until relatively recently. Early in the book, he focuses on the utter shock of the murderous attack on the Lubavitch Jewish Center in Mumbai, India in November 2008. He refers to this horrific attack by Pakistani terrorists as one of the only anti-Semitic attacks in the history of this region. Why would people living in a country like Pakistan, who have so little interaction with Jews in their lives, purposely and specifically set out to murder Jews? This question is what Tarek Fatah explores throughout the book.

Fatah traces the spread of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world since 1869, focusing in particular on the role of Sayyid Qutb, the well-known author of a thirty volume commentary on the Quran. Qutb also wrote an essay entitled “Ma’rakutuna ma’a al Yahud” (“Our Fight Against the Jews”), According to Fatah, Qutb’s work has been used by Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda, among others, to spread ultra-conservative Islam and spread the idea that the Jews are the eternal enemy of Muslims. This view has taken hold in many parts of the Muslim world and has developed into the underpinning for modern terrorist ideology.

Fatah discusses the historical role of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini in meeting with Hitler and supporting Nazism. He points out some of the little known stories of Muslims who fought against the Nazis and saved or sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. Fatah himself is well aware that Muslims would have been next on the list after Jews. It seems clear to him that the idea of Muslim leaders, such as Ahmadinejad advocating Holocaust denial is not only outrageous but it also runs against many tenets of Islam itself. Fatah discusses the powerful effect of his own journey to Poland to visit the camps.

Tackling the issue of Israel, Fatah is less convincing, though his sincerity is clear. Advocating a two state solution, even one which Israel unilaterally sets up by withdrawing from territory, Fatah nevertheless has no delusions that Israel will have a responsive peace partner. While he condemns the ostracization and demonization of Israel, and calls for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, there is a naiveté to his suggestion that leaving the West Bank, with or without a full peace treaty, will create a sea change in Muslim opinion towards Israel and will lead to peace and acceptance of Israel by its neighbours.

Fatah faces even tougher challenges over his next few chapters in examining anti-Semitism in the Qur’an, attributed historical references to Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiment and in particular, the massacre of Jews at Banu Qurayza. Challenging the historical veracity of some of these accounts, Fatah also calls for a re-examination of many Hadit verses which have historically been cited to bolster anti-Semitic views. Here, the call by Fatah is for a significant reform of Islam through the reinterpretation or outright disregard of many Hadit versus.

In his final chapter, Fatah issues a clarion call towards his fellow Muslims:

“We Muslims need to reflect on our predicament. We need to understand that our hatred of the Jew or the West is an admission of our own sense of failure. We need to recognize that blaming the other for our dismal contribution to contemporary civilization is a sedative, not the cure for the disease that afflicts us all. To join the nations and peoples of this world, as brothers and sisters of a common humanity, we need to wean ourselves from our addiction to victimhood and hate.”

It is easy to imagine that if Tarek Fatah represented the majority of world Muslim sentiment, Israel could reach many bilateral peace deals and the world would be a much safer and much more tolerant place. This is in fact similar to the suggestions of Israeli leaders and politicians such as Natan Sharansky, Benjamin Netanyahu and even Avigdor Lieberman who have called for a reformation in Muslim thought and governance as a precursor to real peace. Recent events across the Middle East, from Libya to Egypt and from Syria to Iran have left little doubt that it is the scourge of poverty, inequality, and incompetent, authoritarian governance that are the really significant problems for Muslim countries in the Middle East, not the existence of Israel or worldwide Jewry.

Hopefully, over time, Fatah’s book will spread as widely as Qutb’s throughout the Muslim world and an ideology of peace and tolerance will replace the currently rampant mindsets of violence, anti-Semitism and hatred of the West.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time

Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is a wonderful exploration of different aspects of the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. The book was a finalist for the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and has received other critical acclaim. Part spiritual autobiography, part historical essay and part lyrical journey, the book examines the idea of the Sabbath and its history.

Shulevitz reviews Sabbath observance ranging from early and later Jewish practises, right up to Shabbat in Israel to those of other religious groups as well as secular, labour-inspired views of the need for a weekly day of rest. Along the way, she analyzes the transformation of the Sabbath in Christianity from the early days of the Catholic Church through various Protestant and Sabbatarian movements. Her discussion of the role of the Sabbath in Puritan communities in American History is detailed and fascinating.

With references to and discussions of various philosophers, theologians, novelists, academics and other thinkers throughout the book, Shulevitz overlays history, theology and philosophy with her own personal "spiritual autobiography" as she puts it to arrive at a meaningful relationship with Sabbath observance, in a Jewish context. The stories, feelings and anecdotes that Shulevitz shares imbue the book with a genuine sense of warmth and personal vulnerability.

Drawing on a wide range of sources as diverse as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Samson Raphael Hirsch, D.H. Lawrence, Marx, Kafka, Ferenczi and others, Shulevitz paints a mosaic of sometimes clashing Sabbath ideas. At times poetic, with literary excerpts and allusions, Shulevitz is at other times analytical, juxtaposing various philosophical and biblical ideas.

This not a polemic or strictly an apologetic, though Shulevitz does ultimately call for increased Sabbath observance in society, even if only justified by the secular need to improve the lives of workers, to help people gain some small amount of control over their time and as a means to improve the quality of life generally, if not religiously.

The book is multi-layered, complex, thought provoking and beautifully written. Though the book has, on the whole, a progressive Jewish slant, it examines many different ideas in open minded but critical fashion.

I have to point out that the author's self-defined Sabbath observances are ultimately quite similar to those that I follow so much of what Shulevitz has to say resonates in a very personal way, though this played no role in my original decision to read the book.

Finding a way to create one special day each week, to turn off and tune out technology and to focus on family, friends and community is not only a very important Jewish practice but also one that seems to make increasingly good sense in today's fast paced world. Shulevitz provides a bookful of reasons why this is the case.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Coren's Why Catholics Are Right

Michael Coren’s latest book, Why Catholics Are Right is as pugnacious as the title suggests. Though relatively short, Coren sets out to explain or justify a wide range of official Catholic Church positions and historical conduct. Describing a variety of sources of anti-Catholic beliefs, Coren positions his book as a handbook for those who wish to defend Catholicism against its many would-be attackers. Coren paints the Catholic Church as an institution under attack. One might be confused into thinking he was describing a much smaller and more endangered religious group rather than the Church with its hundreds of millions of adherents.

Calling anti-Catholicism the “last acceptable prejudice in what passes for polite society,” Coren is on a mission to respond to those perceived slights. He points out, on a few occasions in the book, that anyone who disagrees with the views set out in his book is simply wrong. In his introduction, he generously concedes that Non-Catholic Christians, including “serious Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox believers” are only “slightly wrong.” Others, including Christians with different interpretations of the Bible, atheists, “part-time Catholic bashers” and presumably members of every other religious group are “wrong most of the time and to a shocking degree.”

With introductory words like that, it might be tempting for someone like me to simply close the book. But I am interested in reading a range of views, so I continue on. After all, the book is a mere 200 pages and is relatively easy reading.

Coren begins the book by addressing head on what he believes to be two of the major sources of attack on the Church, the abuse scandals and the crusades.

His first chapter downplays the sexual abuse scandals of the Church by essentially arguing that the rate of this type of egregious behaviour is no worse in the Church than anywhere else. He cites various statistics dealing with rates of abuse, both within the Church and other institutions all with the aim of disavowing any relationship between Church dogmas (requiring celibacy and only male priests) and abuse and by extension minimizing the level of Church culpability. He highlights a lengthy letter written by the current Pope in March 2010 to the Irish Church as reflecting Benedict’s historical role as “one of the fiercest opponent of abusers.” Though Coren attacks Christopher Hitchens’ writings on the subject as “cruel, flippant or dumb,” I found Hitchens’ review of the Church’s role in these abuse scandals in God is Not Great to be much more persuasive.

Coren ends the chapter by briefly addressing theological equality, explaining that the Church “simply does not have the authority to ordain women.” The Pope has spoken on this issue and those who disagree can “go elsewhere.” Even though Coren later in the book discusses the role of Biblical interpretation, he dismisses the notion of equality between men and women by arguing that “gender-bending may work in some areas of life but not in the institution that will take you back to God.” By way of contrast, Coren argues later in the book that the Church’s fight against abortion is like the fight of the early opponents of slavery. Sooner or later, the rest of the world will look back on the Church’s position as the correct moral position. But with respect to women’s rights to religious equality, Coren is completely dismissive. It seems to me that the arguments in favour of women as priests are much more analogous to those who fought and opposed slavery and other forms of discrimination. But of course, as Coren points out repeatedly in the book, anyone who holds this view must be wrong. He finishes the chapter with a spirited defence of the celibacy requirement for priests before moving along.

Entitled “Catholics and History,” the second chapter offers a defence of the Church’s behaviour through various historical periods. Coren provides his thumbnail sketch of the Church’s role in the crusades, defending the Church’s conduct at all times. Whether the Church acted in justifiable response to Muslim aggression or within the acceptable ranges of conduct at the time (however barbarian), the Church was part of a generally brutal medieval world, argues Coren. He continues on to suggest that it is ridiculous to pin the Spanish Inquisition (including the mass torture, forcible conversion and expulsion of Jews and others) on the Church and even downplays the number of people “hurt or affected by it.”

Coren also addresses the Holocaust and provides his historical version of why Pope Pius XII was a righteous man whose actions during the Holocaust have been misunderstood or overlooked. There are extensive historical works covering this complex subject which are outside of the scope of a book review. However, it is worth noting that in dealing with this topic, as with every other area that Coren covers in his book, there is no room for any other viewpoint and no admission of any possible errors or wrongdoing on the part of the Church. Coren does not address the history of anti-Semitism in the Church nor the manner in which this was addressed and changed by John Paul II. That would not fit with his thesis that the Church has always been right and everything is immutable.

Moving to theology, Coren explains the doctrines of the supremacy of the Church and of papal infallibility. Coren covers the compilation of the Bible by the Church between 393 A.C.E. and 419 A.C.E. Since the Church selected and compiled this version of the Bible, the Church must be infallible, since the Bible is infallible. This seems self-evidently circular to me. But there it is in black and white. And since Coren says it, it must be correct.

Coren goes on to explain the doctrine of transubstantiation, the importance of confession, Catholic beliefs about purgatory, saints, the Virgin Mary and other sacraments. He circles back to the history and origins of Christianity near the end of his book and ties the historical points there to the various doctrines that are discussed here. Libraries of material have obviously been written about these issues and there all kinds of viewpoints. For an explanation and understanding of the history of the development of the Church and review of the origins of its beliefs and dogmas, I would simply suggest that a book like How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson provides a much more detailed and critical look at these matters.

Next Coren moves on to social issues. He provides a vigorous and unquestioning restatement of the Church’s fundamentalist positions on a range of issues – abortion, birth control, euthanasia and homosexuality and provides short arguments in favour of each of the Church’s stated orthodox positions. Coren quotes former New York Mayor Ed Koch earlier in the book as saying “many in the public…are incensed by positions the Church holds, including opposition to all abortions, opposition to gay sex and same-sex marriage, retention of celibacy rules for priests, exclusion of women from the clergy, opposition to birth control measures involving condoms and prescription drugs and opposition to civil divorce….I disagree with the Church on all of these positions. Nevertheless it has a right to hold these views in accordance with its religious beliefs.” Since Coren is right about everything, as he points out in his book on a number of occasions, everyone who holds contrary views on any of the above issues is simply wrong, including, presumably the former New York Mayor and any other Catholics who might have more liberal views.

The final chapter turns to miscellaneous issues including the most crucial historical details of the life of Jesus and the origins of some of the key beliefs of Catholicism. Coren also discusses marriage annulment, the issue of communion for non-Catholics and the historical myth of a female pope (Pope Joan). On every issue here, as throughout the book, he provides his argument in favour of the most conservative Church view, allowing no room for historical changes, nuanced Biblical interpretations or even dissenting views within the Church.

Coren saves his harshest words for those who he describes as hypocrites – people who claim to be Catholic but act as if they are not. To Coren, there is no room for any liberal interpretation of Catholicism, whether in action or belief. To him, there is one truth, described by the Church, that all Catholics must follow if they are to be taken seriously and accepted as real Catholics.

Though interesting to read, Coren’s book was not particularly stimulating or thought provoking and certainly not persuasive. It sets out a range of beliefs that Coren and many other Catholics have chosen to follow but this is not a book that uses reason, scientific method or critical scholarship. I felt much more challenged by Richard Dawkins The God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great even though each of those books also had its own significant shortcomings.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jonathan Kay - Among the Truthers

Jonathan Kay’s book Among the Truthers is a thought provoking read, but ultimately unsatisfying. Subtitled “A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground,” the book describes and explains various historical examples of conspiracies, provides a history of some conspiracy movements and sets out lessons Kay has drawn from immersing himself in Truth Movement (9/11 conspiracy) lectures, conventions and meetings at which he has had the time to get to know many leading conspiracy theorists.

At the outset, Kay cites examples of real or problematic historical events that may have actually been conspiracies such as Iran-Contra, the “unsatisfying Warren Commission Report on JFK,” the secret bombing of Cambodia, U.S. military cover up of Mai Lai massacres and other examples of real conspiracies. Yet he later calls conspiracy theories a “leading cause and a symptom of intellectual and current crisis.” He is quick, for example, to dismiss any suggestion that the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island could be part of a conspiracy without providing any convincing details.

Kay suggests that sometimes “we don’t know” is the answer to difficult questions that conspiracy theorists raise. While that may be true, conspiracy theories can sometimes be deflated with proper proof. For example, President Obama has now successfully defeated the “birthers” by producing full and proper birth records. Historians have demonstrated, with overwhelming historical proof, the factual basis and record of the Holocaust. Kay himself provides a sound explanation of the hoax of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how it was debunked historically.

Much of the book focuses on the movement of Truthers – those who would argue that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the U.S. government. Kay cites frightening statistics to illustrate the success that Truthers have had in convincing a large percentage of the American population that the U.S. federal government participated in the collapse of the twin towers. He profiles a number of the Truther movement’s leading figures, taking pains to point out that these people are not all easily dismissed as cranks. Many are mathematicians, engineers and others with high level academic achievements. However, Kay points out that his book is not a rebuttal of the various conspiracy theories in detail. Instead he provides a range of references and sources for that type of material.

In reviewing some of the history of conspiracy movements, Kay is convincing in explaining the role of anti-Semitism and more the recently, left wing anti-Zionism in the historical development of these movements. Some of the rest of the historical description is lacking. For example, the lack of a decent response to the JFK material leaves the issue hanging. Although Kay shows a link between JFK conspiracies and 9/11 Truther conspiracies, the factual differences are enormous. With respect to 9/11, there are cell phone calls from victims, airport video surveillance, video footage from many angles, names, faces and stories of each of the terrorists and much other information. This can really only be compared to one home video showing Kennedy’s assassination (the Zapruder film).

The chapter discussing the “birth certificate conspiracy” over Obama is illuminating, particularly demonstrating the link between the Tea Party, Christian fundamentalists (particularly those who rely, literally, on the book of Revelations) and the demonization of Obama. Although Kay acknowledges the “kernel of truth” to some of the allegations about Obama, relating to Obama’s background and upbringing, which might even affect Obama’s decision making on Middle East issues, Kay is easily dismissive of any suggestion that this would make Obama part of some kind of fifth column or an illegitimate president.

The heart of Kay’s discussion is the lessons that one can take from 9/11. The widespread availability, particularly on the internet, of unreliable information has undoubtedly played a major role in the spread of conspiracy theories. Here, Kay laments the downfall of traditional media and the commensurate loss of accuracy in information. But Kay forgets that traditional media have also, historically, been complicit in spreading misinformation. For example, the demonstrably false stories of a massacre in Jenin by the Israeli Defence Forces were spread by the “traditional” media outlets.

Kay refers to the phenomenon as the “democratization of paranoia.” He underlines the fact that internet users can load up web sites with unprovable and false information and rise to the top of Google searches. Of course, accompanying video, that is easily edited and even created, can also be spread quickly and easily.

Ultimately, Kay goes overboard in tying in issues of political correctness and academic “reconstruction” theories to conspiracists. Though he discusses certain issues of Canadian and American discourse, such as aboriginal land claims issues and the reliability of aboriginal “oral history” and also touches on controversial affirmative action issues, it is quite a leap to propose that Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld are targets as alleged conspirators because of the attack by the political correctness movement on middle aged white men. This suggestion does not accord with other parts of Kay’s book in which he notes that most of the Truthers are, in fact, middle aged white males. The idea that an exaggerated version of political correctness should be tied in to the conspiracy theorists is a claim that allows Kay to ignore the very real and positive changes that society has made by changing some of the offensive and discriminatory language that was used in the past.

Kay is on much stronger ground in tracing the tie in between anti-Semitism and conspiracy movements. Here, he highlights the fact that conspiracists on the right and on the left have both been plagued by variants of anti-Semitism. He segues into a discussion of the use by the left of anti-Israel anti-Semitism, which is disguised as fair comment on Israel’s foreign policy. The discussion explains why this is, often, simply disguised anti-Semitism and why that has led or contributed to a shift in Jewish voting patterns and party support in the U.S. and Canada. The shared anti-Semitism is sometimes something that the far right and the far left can share together even while their conspiracy conferences are being held blocks away from each other.

Kay’s recipe for confronting conspiracy movements is in education, particularly in educating people in the ability to filter information and in providing people with the history of conspiracy movements. But Kay lumps in atheist authors such as Hitchens and Dawkins as being complicit in creating an atmosphere that allows for conspiracy theories. “Society requires some creed or overriding national project…” and in the absence of faith, people will be led to these types of theories. But Kay does not circle back to the impact of the many religious Tea Party fundamentalists at the heart of many conspiracy theories that he describes. Surely they have to be at least as dangerous as the atheists, given Kay's historical discussion.

While Kay ultimately calls for the need for society to balance scepticism with faith and cites the need to rehabilitate public institutions, Kay fails to adequately explain why the public institutions warrant the rehabilitation.