Fighting Inequality is a core Jewish Value – Election 2015

This article appeared originally in Haaretz on 01/05/2015  - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.654494

 

The Jewish story begins when a privileged Egyptian prince becomes sensitized to the hardships inflicted on the local slave people. Finding the imaginative capacity to sympathize with them, he eventually decides to liberate this people, irrespective of the cost to his own wellbeing. The ultimate lesson he repeatedly bequeaths to us through his Torah is simple – our fate is bound up with those who are suffering.

It cannot be stated clearly enough: Judaism stands for justice, compassion and equality of opportunity.

So I am deeply perplexed when people tell me that the only legitimate Jewish choice in next week’s U.K. election is to vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives.

And this is not mere anecdote. A recent survey found that only 22% of Jews are planning to vote Labour, with 69% backing the Conservatives.

This is a recent development, for in 2010 the Jewish population was roughly evenly split, with Labour on 31% and the Conservatives on 30%.

The popular account of this is that David Cameron has been a vocal supporter of Israel and the Jewish community, whereas the positions of Ed Miliband have been, in the eyes of many, far less friendly. There is, however, no evidence at all that Labour would respond any differently to the needs of the community, as their previous track record more than amply demonstrates. And questioning Israeli policy is very different from delegitimizing or demonizing it, which Miliband has absolutely not done.

But this election is not about Israel, it is about Britain.

It is about a country where the shape of society is changing, where it is becoming increasingly unequal. And this is the fundamental question in this election: Is one happy about this or does one wish to change it?

Inequality is different from poverty. Helping those in poverty sounds like an optional good deed, and may well be something one does through private means and donations. Perhaps one feels that politics is not the arena in which to be charitable.

Inequality is to do with the distribution of wealth and opportunity in society, which can be measured and tracked statistically. And it appears to be moving in only one direction.

This structural issue is not something that any one person can affect through charity; it is something that only government has the power to tackle.

Only the state can counterbalance the indifferent neutrality of the market economy. Only the law can prevent people being dominated by powerful corporate interests.

And everyone is affected by inequality.

As shown in the 2009’s “The Spirit Level,” unequal societies do worse on nearly every measure. This is because inequality heightens the sense of competition and aggression between people, and makes us relentlessly insecure about the ways we live and the futures we can look forward to.

Inequality is what makes us uneasy when we worry about providing education and health care for our children, about the sorts of opportunities that await them.

The Conservatives have not really engaged with this, sticking to the tired mantra that wealth will somehow trickle down to help everyone.

It doesn’t.

Wealth, like power, has a tendency to concentrate. Once you have some, it becomes a whole lot easier to get more as demonstrated in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital.”

Having wealth allows one to make riskier investments, to employ economies of scale, to undercut the profit margins of competitors. It will often bring influence and access that create subtle but significant advantages.

The only way to tackle this phenomenon is to focus on taxing wealth, as opposed to income. This incentivizes work, whilst reducing the negative and demoralizing effects of aggregation.

This is where the idea of a mansion tax comes in.

There are certainly problems with the mansion tax. It is not clear, for example, why one should tax property rather than other forms of investment.

That said, it is nonetheless a step in the direction towards a society where more people have a chance, where one’s starting point in life doesn’t wholly determine one’s fortunes.

From a Jewish point of view, one could claim that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In the Biblical vision, the entire nation’s wealth would be reset every 50 years, via the Jubilee mechanism. Everyone would start again with equal opportunities, whatever the misfortunes and errors of their fathers.

The mansion tax may not be good for Jews, but it certainly has good Jewish pedigree.

For the many Jewish voters in the Finchley and Golders Green constituency, a further twist in the tale finds Labour’s candidate Sarah Sackman to be a committed Jew and a lover of Israel. Sarah explains her own considered perspective by reference to a famous teaching of Hillel that her grandfather drummed into her: “If I am not for me, who will be for me. But if I am only for me, what have I become?”

She interprets this as charging us with a sense of civil responsibility, with ensuring that one’s politics never become solely about the protection of narrow interests.

And it seems to me that the community would do well to reflect on Hillel’s point. Whilst concern about Israel and the community are certainly admirable, if they are all we can worry about, then, truly, what have we become.

Moses didn’t turn up his nose at those less fortunate, but with courage and faith he managed to change the course of human history, in ways that have echoed and reverberated across the centuries.

To be a Jew is to demand no less of ourselves, and to rise to the challenge of in some small way perfecting our world.

Does Kashrut Breed Racism?

This post originally appeared in Ha’aretz on Sunday 28th September.    For those who don’t have a subscription, here it is:

On a recent trip to Israel my family and I arrived at our destination at around 11.15 P.M. Our hostess – whose house we would be renting – was extremely welcoming and didn’t seem bothered by our arriving even later than planned. She had gone to the extra trouble of ensuring that we would have food for breakfast in the morning and had even prepared a couple of salads for us to enjoy. It was a truly Israeli welcome in the very best sense.

But when she saw my kippah she was suddenly overcome with worry. ”Oh dear,” she said, “I think we have a problem. My kitchen isn’t kosher.”

I was quite taken aback by her presumption that this would be a deal breaker, and quickly re-assured her that we would manage, that we’d often holidayed in houses in France and Spain where there had been no question of the owners bequeathing us a kosher kitchen. She helpfully showed me where we might find some aluminium cooking trays, and seemed reassured that we would be OK.

The episode stuck with me, as I discovered that the divisions between Jewish communities in Israel can be wider than those where I come from. In some ways, they have become emblematic of something I noticed about Israeli society.

I was upset by my host’s feeling that her kitchen would somehow not be good enough for us, that we would look down on her house based on its standard of kashrut. As a Diaspora Jew, I don’t expect other people to consider my dietary needs: If I have a concern, I expect to attend to it myself. Kashrut is a personal and private matter, a practice that I keep to myself; not something I wish to broadcast through vibes of separateness, awkwardness and disdain.

Now, this may not be the classical view of kashrut. For many people and in many periods, the purpose of kashrut was to keep Jews separate from their surrounding communities. In ancient times it may have been a bulwark against idolatrous practice, and in more recent times it served to prevent interaction and assimilation with the broader populace.

That said, I can’t help but feeling that in today’s world things have changed.

In a country where Jews are in the majority and there have been alarming indications of racist undercurrents toward Israeli citizens of Arab origin it feels important to cultivate a Jewish mindset that is different from that embodied in “exclusionary” or ”ghetto” kashrut.

If kashrut is rooted in a sense of “us and them,” of “chosen and not chosen,” then it may, under present conditions, contribute to a dangerous and inflammatory state of mind. Fostering ethnic and racial superiority is always problematic, and, with the challenges Israel presently faces regarding racism, it is particularly unwelcome. Evidence of this social poison can be seen in the rise of anti-Arab group Lehava and in the protests at the recent marriage between Morel Malka and Mahmoud Mansour, encapsulated in the disturbing slogan: ”Arab watch out, my sister is not public property.”

It seems clear that an ongoing challenge to the Jewish-Israeli psyche is the transition from traumatized and persecuted victim to a mindset of sovereign responsibility and a civilised wielding of power.

Kashrut may feel trivial in the face of this task, but the manner in which it is embraced can play a key part in shaping psychological attitudes. If the aim of our kashrut observance is to erect barriers, to separate communities, to distance ourselves from other citizens, then our observance might indeed be contributing to the mindset of separation, both among Jews and between Jews and other Israeli citizens.

If, on the other hand, we embrace kashrut – as other voices in the tradition suggest – to refine our capacity for gratitude, to distance ourselves from violence and hatred, to overcome our tendencies toward indulgence and gluttony, then we Jews as the majority population in Israel might move in a more positive direction.

Freud famously understood some forms of religious practice as instances of obsessional neurosis, as answering a deeply human need to overcome anxiety. The anxiety of difference, of encountering those who do not share our history or values, who look unfamiliar or talk differently from us, is a major part of modern multi-cultural life, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Whilst it might be tempting to respond to difference-anxiety by insisting upon ever-stricter regulations and adherence to kashrut, we should be wary of thoughtlessly falling into this pattern. Rather, we should engage the attentive thoughtfulness kashrut might cultivate, and make every effort to explore and overcome our anxieties about difference.

As a practical example, we might revise the legal status of Israeli Arabs with regard to kashrut. The status quo in Jewish law has been to view them as gentiles, which serves to limit consumption of their food produce. This may have been historically necessary to protect a Jewish minority, but a Jewish majority can be bolder, and find a new legal status that teaches greater respect toward Arab citizens.

Kashrut need not be a place where we express our feelings of being threatened. Positively encouraging Jews and Arabs to break bread together might help re-balance a society struggling to balance Jewish particularism with the universal ideals of Abraham and Isaiah.

It is my hope that the Jewish vision of purity of soul neither reveals nor encourages racist and xenophobic sentiments. We can and must find ways of retaining allegiance with our past that neither diminish our humanitarian sensitivities nor jeopardise our political aspirations in the present.

 

Reflections on Anti-Semitism

The following piece was written a few weeks ago, as worries about Anti-Semitism were starting to suddenly feel quite real.  It feels like it has abated somewhat, and it has been very encouraging to see all parts of society speaking out against it.  Let us hope that the warning has been heard, and the dangers felt by all.

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/anti-semitism-hope-or-despair/ 

The Need to Respect the Private Shabbat 6, 7, 8

We are continuing to get to grips with the definitions of boundaries in Shabbat, and following from our attempt to understand movement and transition, we are now focussing on understanding the difference between the public realm and the private realm.

The Talmud sees fit to spend quite a few pages on this, as opposed to a few lines, and it seems to take it pretty seriously.  These are not pages filled with humour and wit, they are Rabbinic Legalism at its purest.

As ever in these situations, I find myself wondering what it was that was underlying these discussions, what themes and ideas were in play which made it feel like establishing these boundaries was so critical.

I think that in this case there is actually quite a lot to be thinking about.

Being able to navigate the difference between what is public and what is private is a central issue in religious life.

At the simplest level, Judaism is a religion which emphasises and exists by virtue of community.  For a community to exist, there must be a sense of something shared amongst people, a feeling that there are ideals, values and practices which bind them together.

In a perfect world, a community might naturally emerge, people might simply discover that they have a lot in common and that they fare better by inhabiting a more interactive space, a public realm that has a richer texture.  And to some extent this is what happens.

But it is not always this simple, sometimes individuals will feel frustrated and disillusioned, and will find it harder to exist in the public communal space whilst still expressing fidelity to its ideals.  Things may be going on for them, or they may just be experiencing a period of doubt or exhaustion.  At these points public life can just seem a lot harder.

This is a part of life, and as far as Judaism is concerned it is to be understood and appreciated.  One of the categories of person who was historically excluded from the community was one who ‘violated the Sabbath in public’.  Struggling to maintain observance of Shabbat in one’s private space is one thing, it is a much more serious problem for the community when someone makes a public demonstration of their rejection of Shabbat.

Putting it differently, we might say that a large part of what makes Shabbat is the communal commitment to it, the creation of a public space that is free of work and worldly concerns, that is dedicated to the restoration of the spirit and the recollection of values.  If people are not able to respect this, then they have misunderstood the essence of community, they have automatically excluded themselves from its workings.

What we are therefore advocating is a strong sensitivity to the public space, and an awareness of how it differs from one’s private space.  We respect the private space, the haven wherein one might have more flexibility and room to express one’s dissent and ambivalence.

This is not to say that we wish to encourage a community based on hypocrisy, a lifestyle fuelled solely by people ‘keeping up appearances’.  It is simply to register that the communal space is somewhat sacrosanct, and that maintaining this is challenging.  When one isn’t up for the challenge, one should make use of the breathing space that the private realm offers, wherein one can act out one’s different feelings to less destructive effect.

Continuing deeper into the exploration of the public and private, what applies at the level of community also applies at the level of the relational or interpersonal.  Whilst honesty and frankness are important, it is not always the case that everything which is felt or thought should be acted upon.  We are sometimes overcome with anger or hatred, and it can seem like the most natural thing in the world to act on these impulses.  And that may sometimes be the right thing to do.  But sometimes it will not be, sometimes the person in front of us will not be the one who is really making us angry, they will not be the root of our hatred, and we risk doing irreparable damage to the relationship by acting out our fury.

Similarly, and perhaps more obviously, we may sometimes find ourselves inclined towards inappropriate intimacies, be they sexual or otherwise.  Here too we are asked to distinguish between the private realm, wherein we may consider and reflect upon these desires, and the public realm, wherein the deed reigns supreme, and is rarely easily undone.

Therapy occupies an interesting space on this continuum, something like the ‘karmelit’ that the Talmud speaks of, which is neither public nor private, yet has something in common with both.  It is private enough such that everything can be safely expressed and explored within its boundaries.  On the other hand it is more public than being left alone with one’s torments, with the ravages of one’s potentially punitive conscience.  By shedding a little of the public light on one’s problems, they can begin to be unpicked, one can start to understand them with better perspective.

And at this point we arrive at the most important of the distinctions between public and private, the one which we spend the whole of our lives trying to untangle, which we may never truly overcome.

Put simply, and it is a devilishly hard thing to grasp, it is the difference between what we think we are feeling, perceiving and experiencing and the true reality of those feelings, perceptions and experiences.

At this point, confusingly, it is important to note that the ‘reality’ of those feelings is actually deeply buried in the private realm and the way we perceive them is actually more reminiscent of the public realm.  ‘Public’ in this sense is what we are conscious of, ‘private’ is what is unconscious.

An example will help us to get a handle on this.  Imagine a child brought up by parents he could never quite manage to please, who were angry and hostile with him almost indiscriminately, certainly not in any measured sense.  This child will never have been given the confidence to act naturally in the world, he will forever be trying to figure out what might make the people around him happy, and using that as the basis for action.  When he does not succeed in pleasing these people, or even thinks he perceives that this is the case, he will experience this as a grave and serious failing, even if it was in fact nothing of the sort.

In the public realm of his conscious mind, he is trying to please his boss, or perhaps his wife, and he is pretty sure that their demands are reasonable.  But in the private realm of his unconscious he is reliving the torment of his young childhood, he is trying to please a hostile or disinterested father, trying to win over an angry or depressed mother.

This is why he feels so unduly invested in the outcomes of these ‘real-world’ events, why the approval of his boss feels so weighty and significant to him, why his wife’s fury over something trivial cuts him to the core.

For he is still trying to redeem the child inside that was never adequately welcomed into the world.  He engaged in an ongoing battle with the forces of hostility that gave him his earliest orientation in life, which forever tarnished his perceptions of human interaction.

It is not that there is an easy fix for this confusion, overcoming this difficult start in life is a mammoth task.  But one of the ways to begin is by trying to understand the difference between what is private here and what is public, what is being enacted or lived unconsciously and what appears to be happening to the conscious mind.

And I would like to emphasise that this situation is not unique to people with a difficult childhood (everyone?)  or to those who suffered other traumas or setbacks in life.  We are all made up of the history of our experiences, our patterns of behaviour and feeling are built up like the layers we might find in an archaeological dig.  It will be rare that anything we do or think has no connection with the deeper strata of our mind’s formation; acknowledging this is an early step in moving towards an easing of the tension that eats away at us.

People sometimes protest that this is a reductive way of looking at people, that it is crude and deterministic in its assessment of personality.  And I get this, I can see that it is hard to accept that we neither know nor control ourselves nearly as well as we think.

But ultimately I find this outlook really quite liberating, a source of tremendous optimism.  If at least some of the troubles we face in life have their source within us, if we partially create them as a result of unrecognised or unresolved needs or patterns in our psyche, then we have reason to believe that we can change.

And this change is not necessarily moral, it may sometimes actually involve giving up what was perceived as a profound moral challenge.  Nonetheless, it may well be  a change which enables us to experience greater harmony and unity, which can overcome some of the discord and alienation dividing our psyche.

Going back to the daf, Rav Chiyya bar Rav and Rav Ashi are debating whether a pile of excrement in the street is considered to a public or a private domain.

This may sound grotesque or absurd, but my experience of therapy tells me that this is actually the biggest question we face in life.  The shit in our lives: is it part of the outer world or is it part of our inner world?  Is it the external reality of a situation which is genuinely unbearable or is it something in us which is interpreting it negatively;  is a fairly benign person or event triggering a strange overreaction in us, tapping into something primal and infantile which were heretofore unaware of?

We are concerned with what is within and what is without.   And in the case where they cannot be so easily disentangled,  we try to learn from weighing up the public and private contributions to the whole.

The Talmud was right to spend a long time on this distinction; there is ultimately no deeper nor more rewarding question for us to live by.