Archive for category Ideology

Boston Bombings: looks like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were homegrown terrorists

Turns out the spurious-sounding rumours that I reported earlier were, in fact, incorrect – meaning that Alan Jones was wrong. Who saw that one coming?

The bombers were not actually radical leftists. It turns out to have been Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tzarnaev – two Muslim brothers from Chechnya.

As of writing, Tamerlan has been shot and Dzokhar is apparently holed-up in a house, surrounded by police and National Guard. There is not a huge amount of information out there about them, but it is coming in drips and drabs – and everything that I have seen so far points to homegrown terrorists.

One of the quickly cobbled-together reports comes from Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner (my bold):

Who is Tamerlan Tzarnaev? | FP Passport.

Tamerlan was apparently a boxer who hoped to gain citizenship by being selected for the U.S. Olympic team: “Unless his native Chechnya becomes independent, Tamerlan says he would rather compete for the United States than for Russia,” Hirn wrote.

Other captions paint Tamerlan as a devoted Muslim. “I’m very religious,” he says at one point, noting that he does not smoke or drink alchol. “There are no values anymore,” he says, worrying that “people can’t control themselves.”

Tamerlan also appears isolated and bewildered by American life. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he laments, despite living in the United States for five years. “I don’t understand them.”

At the time the photos were taken [2009], Tamerlan’s life did not seem all bad: Hirn writes that he was competing as a boxer, enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College and pursuing a career as an engineer, and had a half-Portuguese, half-Italian girlfriend that converted to Islam for him. “She’s beautiful, man!” he said.

At some point, though, it all went wrong. In 2009, Tamerlan was arrested for domestic assault and battery after assaulting his girlfriend.

Dzhokhar, meanwhile, was a second-year medical student.

I don’t have a link for this, but I just listened to an interview of their uncle and I picked up a couple of other facts. Their uncle claimed that it is likely that Tamerlan had been influencing Dzhokhar, and that Dzhokhar was a sweet boy but Tamerlan had problems. He also said that their parents worked extremely hard and were only concerned with putting food on the table, although they both returned to Russia a year ago.

Also of interest is Tamerlan’s social media page. There are not many posts, but one includes a video entitled “Chechnyan accents”, and another has this joke:

Inside a car sit a Dagestani, a Chechen and Ingush. Who is driving?

The police.

According to this photo by photojournalist Johannes Hirn – who did a series on Tamerlan – Tamerlan was not doing too badly for himself. At least according to the designer clothing and the Mercedes he was driving:

Tamerlan by Johannes Hirn

Finally (and most significantly), according to Adam Serwer at Mother Jones, Tamerlan had been consuming and distributing Islamist propaganda.

Putting this all together, we can build a profile of the two boys (well, more so for Tamerlan):

  • Second generation immigrants (they both went to high school in the US, so more or less second).
  • Relatively affluent.
  • Devout Muslims with an Islamist bent.
  • Well educated.
  • Socially isolated – had trouble integrating into America and did not really feel as though they belonged.
  • Viewed Western culture as amoral.

What you have right there is the textbook profile for homegrown terrorists. They tend to be young second or third generation Muslim immigrants feel like the don’t belong anywhere – they can’t relate to their new adopted country, but have grown up there, so don’t fit in back in their old country. They feel lonely and isolated, so begin searching for meaning – and find it in extreme Islamism. This requires that they are affluent/educated enough to read and understand the jihadi propaganda, and to navigate the complex online network that jihadi groups operate in.

The truth remains to be seen, but from what we do know, my bet is that this is more or less the story of the Brothers Tzarnaev.

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How the ‘Kashrut Racket’ drives Jews away from practicing Judaism

Olive Oil

Olive Oil (Photo credit: desegura89)

Note for my non-Jewish readers: please refer to the glossary at the end if you don’t understand any of the Hebrew/Yiddish terms.

I would say it’s time to blow the whistle on this, but what I am about to write about is such an ‘open secret’ in Australia at least that the whistle has been well and truly blown by now. What has not really been considered enough are the ramifications of what has been going on.

I’ll begin with a personal story.

A few years ago, I was organising an overnight event for young Jews in NSW. As a matter of practice, all such events should be kosher-catered – clearly, not to do so would exclude all of the more practicing members of the community, which is not something that Jewish organisations should be in the business of doing.

For some background: the extremely stringent standard of kashrut kept by Judaism’s current brand of Orthodoxy (which is not the same as has always been practiced) mandates that people like the leadership of Jewish communal organisations cannot be trusted to make sure that the cooking is done correctly. Instead, all food preparation must be officially certified by, in this case, Sydney’s Kashrut Authority (‘KA’).

This meant that in organising the camp, I had the extreme displeasure of having to gain approval from the KA. Fortunately for me, a friend of mine at the time was a certified moshgiach with the KA and he had agreed to supervise the camp’s kitchen on a pro bono basis.

Of course, having a certified moshgiach is still not sufficient for Orthodoxy Inc., which requires the KA’s actual stamp of approval.

That left me with the task of calling the KA and asking for approval to call the camp ‘kosher’. Naturally, the woman on the other end of the line was *shocked* that we were contemplating having a kosher event with a moshgiach and not paying the KA. It wouldn’t stand, she quote a figure of several hundred dollars and hung up the phone.

The organisation that I was working for is not particularly wealthy. Those several hundred dollars were much more than we could afford if we hoped to charge a cover fee that our members would actually pay. I had to call back and practically beg for an exception to be made, given the service we were doing for the community and the fact that we were doing this in order that Orthodox Jews not be excluded etc. etc. I think we got away with it in the end, but I left the affair with a very sour taste in my mouth.

This story was far from unique. It is, in fact, just a tiny example of the extortion racket that the KAs in Sydney and elsewhere have become.

There is a vegan restaurant that I know of in Bondi, which pays thousands of dollars each year to the Melbourne KA in order to be kosher certified and so appeal to the large Jewish clientele in the area (the Sydney KA were outside their budget). Now, kosher laws only really govern meat/seafood. If there is a restaurant that is completely vegetarian, you can be more or less certain that all of the food it serves is kosher. Vegan, even more so.

Anything that is vegan necessarily complies with every single law of kashrut bar one. What one would that be? The one requiring large cash payoffs to the KA. This is how there are such arbitrary differences between what different KAs will and will not accept as kosher.

For example, for those following the Melbourne KA, here are the Australian oils you can buy this Pesach:

ADELPHIA (umberto@frattali.com.au)
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
BANABAN (www.naturepacific.com)
*Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, *Virgin Coconut Oil
BENEVITA (thebigolive.com)
*100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
CECCONI’S CANTINA
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
COBRAM ESTATE
+Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Fresh & Fruity Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Rich & Robust Extra Virgin Olive
Oil, +Novello Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Pictual Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Premiere Extra Virgin Olive Oil
COCKATOO GROVE (www.cockatoogrove.com.au)
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
COLES
+Australian Extra Virgin Olive oil
COORONG
+Extra Virgin Olive Oil
DIANA
+Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Novello Extra Virgin Olive Oil
DISSEGNA (dissegna@activ8.net.au)
*Extra Virgin Olive Oil
FRATTALI (umberto@frattali.com.au)
*Extra VirginOlive Oil
OLIVE GROVE
+Extra Virgin Olive Oil
OLLO
+Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Fresh & Fruity, +Mild & Mellow
OZOLIO
*100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
PROCHEF
+Extra Virgin Coconut Oil Spray, +Extra VirginOliveOil Spray
PUREHARVEST
+Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
THE BIG OLIVE (thebigolive.com)
*100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil, +Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray

As for Sydney, you can pick from this list:

ALTO OLIVES
P Premium Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Delicate
P Premium Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Lemon Infused
P Premium Australian Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Robust
BENEVITA
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
COORONG
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
MACADAMIA OILS OF AUSTRALIA
P Macadamia Oil
OLLO
P Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Fresh and Fruity
P Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Mild and Mellow
OZOLIO
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil
PRESSED PURITY BY PROTECO
P Cold Pressed Almond Oil
P Cold Pressed Apricot Oil
P Cold Pressed Avocado Oil
P Cold Pressed Macadamia Oil
P Cold Pressed Olive Oil
P Cold Pressed Walnut Oil
PROCHEF
P Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray
R SOLOMON & CO
P Cottonseed Oil ONLY when bearing a Diamond KA – Kosher for Pesach Logo
THE BIG OLIVE
P 100% Natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil

So why exactly are, for example, Adelphia and Banaban oils kosher in Melbourne but not in Sydney? This is conjecture, but my bet would be that, similar to the vegan restaurant in Bondi, they could afford the Melbourne KA’s fees, but not those of the Sydney KA. I don’t believe for one second that it’s about ‘higher standards’ and not higher fees.

Why does this matter?

I’m glad you asked.

Essentially, keeping kosher these days is not an easy thing to do. If you live any distance away from the Jewish population centres in the major cities, you had better get used to eating plain chips and the tiny selection of chocolates and other goods with the official KA stamp. If you want to eat anything that can vaguely be described as ‘interesting’ – especially any meat products – you need to be prepared to spend 2-3 times what you would pay for the same item without the kosher stamp.

More to the point, if you want to go out for a meal, you are essentially restricted to four overpriced restaurants in Bondi. When you are at functions or parties, you have to either bring your own food or make sure that the host has ordered you a ready-to-microwave meal from Lewis’ Kosher Kitchen. For this reason, most of my friends who intend to keep kosher will still go out and eat a vegetarian meal at a non-kosher restaurant. Also for this reason, most of my other friends do not keep kosher.

The exorbitant costs of being kosher-certified ensure that there is little competition in the kosher catering industry. In order to remain officially kosher, new restaurants or caterers have to increase their prices and push-down their profit margins so that they remain competitive in an already difficult market.

Further, the arbitrary way in which products are designated ‘kosher’ or ‘non-kosher’ – not much to do with the preparation of the food, but everything to do with who the company has paid-off – makes the whole kosher enterprise lose credibility in many eyes.

In essence, thanks to the KAs, being kosher in Australia is both expensive and unappetising. The KA extortion racket is reducing the culinary choices for practicing Jews in Australia and, in doing so, ensuring that fewer Jews in Australia could be described as ‘practicing.’

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Kashrut: refers to Jewish dietary laws. You probably know the word ‘kosher’ – same kind of idea.

Moshgiach: a person who is employed to supervise the preparation of the food in order to ensure that it is being done in accordance with kashrut.

 

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Is Christmas offensive? A non-Christian perspective

I had an interesting experience last week, it happened a couple of times. When arranging something to do with friends, I suggested Monday night, only get the response: ‘you mean Christmas Eve??’

It was interesting because it showed me how everyone else must feel when I say something like that for the many festivals that I have over the course of the year (which is  a lot more than non-Orthodox Christians keep). It reversed the roles a little. I wasn’t cognisant of Christmas Eve, you see. As a non-Christian, it really doesn’t mean that much to me.

I am aware of the fact of Christmas Eve, I know that 24 December is Christmas Eve, but I am not aware of it enough to have connected it to Monday night in my mind. I don’t generally plan to mark Christmas Eve with anything in particular – to me, it is just another night of the brief holidays that I have at this time of year. (Not that I’m complaining about the day off work, but I’m kinda complaining about the day off work. I’ll get back to that later.)

It’s not the forgetting Christmas that got to me though, it’s what comes after. You see, it seems as though the Jew forgetting that it’s Christmas Eve serves as a little reminder to everyone that the Jew is different. The tone of conversation changes from there because everyone is aware of that fact. We live in a modern, multicultural society and everyone knows that they should be inclusive. So they try to be. Which is really quite horrible.

Talking about Christmas: NOT offensive. But apologising for talking about Christmas: OFFENSIVE

Suddenly it seems as though everyone needs to apologise for everything that they do on Christmas. My friends start talking about the great ham they are eating or the tree that they decorated, then they catch themselves, turn to me and apologise.

This is not ok. Aside from the fact that they are doing nothing wrong, the reason it is not ok is that it is patronising. It’s a little reminder of the hegemonic status of Christianity compared with my practices. It would never even occur to me as a Jew to apologise to Christians for celebrating any of the Jewish holidays. It’s what I do, they don’t do it, so I need to tell them that [x] date is Simchat Torah and It’s my religious duty to be getting hammered and dancing around in circles carrying a Torah scroll, so I can’t come to the poker night. Or something.

Apologising is what people from the hegemonic culture do to minority cultures to make us feel ‘included’. What it does is exactly the opposite: it is a reminder of status. Think about it this way: if the reason that you were celebrating with your family was not a point of difference, but something that is shared between cultures – ie a wedding, birth etc – would you be apologising? I can’t imagine anyone saying:

Yeah the wedding is going to be amazing! I’ve seen the menu, the food is beautiful and… oh, I’m really sorry MK!

It just doesn’t play that way. But I have heard from several people something along the lines of:

My dad is making pork belly for Christmas, it going to be amazing! Oh, really I’m sorry MK!

Fuck that.

Eating pork: NOT offensive. But apologising for eating pork: OFFENSIVE

It’s a similar phenomenon to eating out. I am not especially observant as a Jew and I don’t keep strictly kosher, but there are a few ‘red lines’ that I tend not to cross – no pork, no shellfish, and I try to avoid mixing milk and meat when I can. What this means is that I struggle to eat at some forms of Asian cuisine, which seems to have nothing but pork and shellfish. What this does not mean is that I am offended by other people eating pork or shellfish.

Yet in these scenarios, people start doing that apologising thing again. And then they act overly friendly to compensate, as if to say:

Hey MK, we know that you’re one of those strange ‘Jew’ types, so you don’t eat normal food like us, but that’s super ok, we can order vegetarian food for you and be really super friendly, just to show you how ok it is that you don’t eat pork. Because it’s fine. Really. Doesn’t bother us one bit. No, seriously! We’re ok with it. Are you ok? We’re ok if you’re ok. Because that’s what friends do. They’re ok.

Again, people do not act that way for other kinds of dietary requirements. I can’t remember ever being in a situation where someone was condescended to in that fashion for being vegetarian, or gluten intolerant, or allergic to nuts. It’s a particular brand of condescension that comes from all of the power dynamics playing out in the room. And I’m going to stop there, because I’m starting to sound like Foucault, and I hate Foucault.

Celebrating Christmas: NOT offensive

I don’t know who came up with the idea that non-Christians would feel less offended when people celebrate Christmas and then pretend that they are doing something else, but it’s a little silly. You can call it a ‘holiday tree’ if you want. You know it’s a Christmas tree, and I know it’s a Christmas tree. What are you trying to prove? The whole charade is ridiculous. I hate all of these initiatives to ban public Christmas displays, or have ‘Happy Holidays!’ written everywhere. It’s Christmas, you’re Christians, you’re allowed to celebrate the birth of Jesus if you want to.

I actually find the Christmas trees, lights, and songs this time of year quite beautiful. Believe it or not, it’s possible to appreciate other cultures and not just be offended by them all the time. Sure, Lakemba Mosque issues fatwas on saying ‘merry Christmas’, and I hear some equally stupid sentiments from some of the more zealous in the Jewish community, but really what does it matter? I say ‘chag sameach’ to my non-Jewish friends on holidays, they can say ‘merry Christmas’ to me. It’s no problem.

That said…

Forcing me to celebrate Christmas: OFFENSIVE

So I was driving around yesterday with two friends, trying to find something to do. There was nothing, the whole town was dead. Even the obligatory Christmas Chinese food was almost impossible to find. We tried almost every Chinese joint in the East, before stumbling across a little one in Bondi that had decided to open its doors to some hungry Jews on a rainy day. God bless them.

Which is fine, except that the only reason that everything is closed because of penalty rates. I’ve complained about penalty rates before, but this is yet another example and I want to do it again.

The bastion of cultural tolerance that is the Australian Labor Party and its affiliates at the Australian Union movement have decided that Australians should be with their families on the Christian holidays and on the Christian sabbath, whether they want to or not. For this reason, they have imposed inordinately high penalty rates that must be paid to anyone working on Christmas – and slightly lower, but a similar idea on Sundays – to the effect that businesses operating legally are more or less forced to close.

That means that all of us non-Christians out there are being forced by law to keep Christian holidays, or else be fined. THAT is extremely offensive. It’s a lot more offensive than the beautiful lights display projected onto St Mary’s Cathedral at night, I’ll say that much.

Sure a day off work is a day off work and I won’t complain about a day off work. I also bet that, were there not penalty rates, most places would still choose to close on Christmas. But people to whom 25 December bears little unusual significance should be allowed to go to work on 25 December if they so choose. But we don’t even enter into the discussion. As a regular viewer of Q and A, I have seen numerous Anglo officials from the ALP and the Unions saying something like ‘well we can’t take working people away from their families on Christmas!’

Newsflash: NOT ALL WORKING PEOPLE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS.

At the risk of sounding like Foucault again: check your fucking privilege.

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How’s this for ‘echo chamber’?

Politico, 2012:

The GOP’s media cocoon – POLITICO.com Print View.

Facebook and Twitter feeds along with email in-boxes have taken the place of the old newspaper front page, except that the consumer is now entirely in charge of what he or she sees each day and can largely shut out dissenting voices. It’s the great irony of the Internet era: People have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views.

“The Internet amplifies talk radio and cable news, and provides distribution for other sources like Newsmax,” said Trey Grayson, 40, the former Kentucky secretary of state and the current head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “Then your friends, who usually agree with you, disseminate the same stories on Facebook and Twitter. And you assume that everyone agrees with you!”

Grayson continued: “It’s very striking for me living in Cambridge now. My Facebook feed, which is full of mostly conservatives from Kentucky, contains very different links to articles or topics than what I see in Cambridge. It is sort of the reverse up here. They don’t understand how anyone would eat Chick-fil-A, watch college sports or hold pro-life views.”

“Social media has made it easier to self-select,” added 45-year-old GOP strategist Bruce Haynes. “Who do you follow on Twitter, who do you friend on Facebook? Do they all look the same and say the same things? If so, you’ve created a universe for yourself that is wedded to its own self-fulfilling prophecies.”

John Stuart Mill, 1859:

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and largeminded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age.

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In defence of Yom Kippur

Part two of my Yom Kippur ramble. See here for part one.

So last week I had a long post lamenting the decline of Yom Kippur and the fact that I couldn't get a goddamn drink of water afterwards. That brings me to what was supposed to be the point before I got side-tracked by other things: Yom Kippur.

I first have to explain a little about my personal beliefs and practises. I am not a “believer” in the sense that I believe that the bible is the unbreakable law dictated by God itself and preserved word-for-word since. I am a believer in the sense that I have yet to be given a better explanation for the fact that I not only exist, but am able to sit here typing into my iPad and questioning the meaning of things on WordPress. I am also a Jew — I was born a Jew, I was raised a Jew, and I see a great deal of value in some Jewish traditions and beliefs.

The key word there being some. There are other Jewish traditions and beliefs (mostly traditions) that I see no value in or even disagree with. My approach, therefore, is to try and learn about everything, follow the parts that make sense, ignore the ones that don't, and fight against the ones that are harmful. In fact, that's the approach I try to take with everything, not just religion.

For example, I am not currently keeping the festival of Succot, which began today. Succot has just never made sense to me. I understand that it has to do with the harvest, but I: a) live in the Southern Hemisphere, where we are not currently harvesting; and b) am not and have never been a farmer, therefore do not know much abut harvests. I also kind of understand the point about spending time in crude, outdoor structures like the ones our ancestors had to live in when they were wondering through the desert, but I have never found much meaning in the experience.

And that's not even getting into the whole shaking the branches around thing. I mean, seriously! What's up with that?

On the other hand, I really like everything about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I contrast these two festivals to the secular new year, there is really not much comparison. There is a tradition in the West of making “new year's resolutions” that you break within a month and, otherwise, it's just marking a milestone/an excuse to get drunk (not that I don't like an excuse to get drunk, but still).

The Jewish approach to the new year just seems much more valuable. You have to take the time to be with family and to reflect on the good and bad things that you have done over the past year, apologise to those you have harmed (and that means a real apology), and think about how you could be a better person. Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of the whole tradition. It's a day out of each year when you are supposed to devote purely to self-reflection, to the extent that you forego usual distractions like eating and drinking to give you more focus.

I know a lot of people say “but fasting just makes me think about eating more”, but I disagree. You would be thinking about eating anyway, you're human. The fact that you think about eating but can't eat forces you to dwell on why you are depriving yourself of food, which means that you spend the whole day of Yom Kippur remembering that it is Yom Kippur. It's actually quite a powerful experience if you think about it. And of course, there is the test of willpower that I think can't possibly be a bad thing – knowing that you can eat and still depriving yourself for a purpose is something that a lot of spoilt people are not capable of doing (no names mentioned).

And there are other aspects that I like. The idea of communal confessions, for instance. There is something very powerful in the idea of the whole community coming together and all confessing at once to being flawed. It's a very egalitarian concept and very humbling. Compare it, for instance, to the Catholic idea of confession — a private confession to a priest of your sins. The dynamic there is completely different: you are inferior to the priest, who is absolving you on God's behalf. Your sins are private and secretive – ie something you do not want other people to know about.

In synagogue on Yom Kippur, on the other hand, everyone is a sinner – from the rabbi to the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community to the criminals and drug addicts. And that happens publicly. Everyone confesses to each other and to God that they are not perfect, that they did things that were wrong, and they promise in front of each other to be better people.

These are things that would only ever come through a religious tradition. My atheist friends tell me that they are “always trying to improve themselves”, or say things like “well I could do that any day of the year”. My answers are: “no you are not” and “but you don't”.

You do not live your life constantly improving yourself, because that is just not how human beings function. There is no way to be self-reflexive in that way without taking a step back – as Yom Kippur compels you to do. And I do not know any non-Jews who take a day each year purely for that purpose, let alone doing it communally.

For all those reasons, I think that Yom Kippur is a very positive tradition and it is one that I will continue to keep. That is why it saddens me that so many in my community do not feel the need to keep or respect it. I feel that it is kind of a knee-jerk reaction more than anything else – they have decided that they don't want to “be Jewish” for one reason or another and therefore it is all meaningless and it is all a waste of time.

The worst part of it is that the person boasting to me about the bacon roll that they ate on Yom Kippur morning is still letting their life be defined by Judaism. Doing that is not actually “ignoring” Judaism, so much as being unnecessarily spiteful. No matter how they may rationalise it to themselves, the reality is that they know that it is Yom Kippur and are cognicent of the fact that they are deliberately doing something slightly disrespectful to the day in order to prove a point to themselves and – judging by the fact that I was being boasted to – to others.

It seems like teenage rebellion more than anything else, like the kids who wear the wrong socks to school, even though their teacher keeps telling them not to, just because they can and “YOU CAN'T TELL ME HOW TO LIVE!!!”

It's puerile and its pointless.

The vast majority of people who are not keeping Yom Kippur have never thought about why they are not doing it, they are just allowing what they do not do to define what they do – ie “I am not religious” therefore” I do not keep festivals”. But why define your life in black and white terms like that? Just because some Jewish things are annoying or pointless does not mean that there is no value in others.

To me, it's not a smart way to live and will definitely not make you a better person.

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Don’t put the girls and the drinks at the back of the room: why Yom Kippur needs saving

Note: this post was originally entitled ‘In defence of Yom Kippur’, but I started explaining why YK needs saving in the first place and that became an entire post. So please read this first and I promise that the defence is coming.

As I walked into my relatives’ home yesterday to break my fast, it was quite obvious to me that the whole function had been planned and organised by people who had not themselves been fasting.

How could I tell? Simple: after 25 hours of not eating or drinking, the one thing that you need more than anything else is some liquid. The human body can actually survive relatively well for weeks without food, but a couple of days with no water and *goodbye*. Knowing this, anyone who had been fasting would have drinks — and a lot of them — made very available for everyone leaving synagogue and coming to the social part of the evening.

As I walked through the door, however, I was greeted not with drinks, but with a whole range of food. This is not to say that I have a problem with the honey cake, chopped liver and other Ashkenazi fast-breaking treats — it’s just that it’s extremely difficult to swallow a mouthful of honey cake without choking when your throat feels like it has been covered in a layer of fly-paper.

I said the obligatory hello to the several relatives who caught my eye as soon as I walked in, but during this time my eyes were constantly searching for the elusive drinks table. I asked one of my interlocutors where I could find myself a drink around there, and he promptly pointed down the hallway, through a crowd of 50 assorted relatives and family friends, to the garden at the back of the house.

My face dropped in dismay. There was no conceivable way that I would be able to get to the drinks table without being stopped by at least one parent, two grandparents, one auntie and two or three cousins — each of whom would take up approximately 5 minutes of conversation before I could make a polite exit. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to have had some rather intense commando-style training in moving through crowds with my head down, and this was definitely the occasion to use it.

A few minutes later, having managed to avoid eye contact with the vast majority of my kin, I arrived panting at the drinks table, only to discover that my cousins had hired a bartender for the evening to cater to the 70-odd guests and that — being a professional — he had a few bottles of mostly alcoholic drinks on the table and all of the glasses behind him. To my even further dismay, he was using those tiny glasses that people seem to think makes a function more classy, but I’m pretty sure are only used by restaurants to force customers to keep ordering more overpriced drinks as there is no way 200ml of anything can remotely quench anyone’s thirst.

At that point I probably would have started shooting my own family if it meant there was a drink at the end of it, yet I still had to wait for another 3 minutes while the bartender casually served other people as though he had all the goddamn time in the world and there wasn’t some guy standing there about to collapse from dehydration. When I finally managed to grab him by the arms his attention, I ordered three glasses of sparkling water (there was no still) which, after what seemed like an eternity of pouring, I was finally able to gulp down.

Now I am not telling this story not just to vent — I’m getting to the point, I promise you.

Putting the drinks at the back and guarded by the bartender would seem like a perfectly natural thing to do when putting on a function of that size which was not a breaking-of-the-fast. For those of us who did fast, however, it was torture. This is relevant because it suggests — as was the case — that most of my family did not fast. In fact, most of my family were not even at any shul services.

I have done calculations before that put shul attendance on Yom Kippur in Sydney at about 50% of Sydney’s Jews, excluding those who cannot make it because they are too young, too elderly or too unhealthy. There are many reasons why the other half of our community do not attend and if you had the next week or two to keep reading this I could perhaps list most of them, but as it is I may have to settle for one or two.

One thing that I can say for sure is this: the men in my family may put in an appearance at shul, but the women don’t go. Similarly, the women do not fast. That is true across the board — my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my aunties, my female cousins — they all arrived at dinner much earlier than those of us who were rushing home from the ne’ila service for the reason of having been not at the service and not fasting. (Some will tell you that they fasted until the afternoon, but to me that is called ‘skipping breakfast’ and happens once a week, not once a year. Also, in fairness, my mother did go to shul — but I will explain that below.)

This, while perhaps unfortunate, is unsurprising. As you may have gathered, my family is not particularly observant of our religion. Despite this, almost without fail, they have seats at Central Synagogue. That is the major Orthodox synagogue in Sydney, which charges an obscene amount of money for seats that people renew each year but never sit on.

In a religion and a culture that is theoretically so focused on questions and discussion, you would think that at some point people would ask questions like “why do I pay $3,000 every year to attach a little chrome plate with my name inscribed onto a chair in a synagogue that I never intend to ever sit on?” But ours is a community that is never taught to ask these things — all we really “know” is that it would be “wrong” not to fork-out the cash.

I think I may have touched on this before, but I follow Mazorti and not Orthodox Judaism primarily because we do not believe in forcing the women to the back of the room and hiding them away, lest we be distracted from the important things — like peering over the shoulder of the guy in front to see where we are up to in the service, counting the amount of pages left, then crying a little when we realise that we have only gone through five pages in the last half hour because the chazzan loves his annual moment in the spotlight and feels the need to drag each syllable out as far as it can possibly be stretched and then repeat the whole line.

You know, because you can’t do that if you’re standing next to your mother. She might distract you, by being female and therefore quite possibly having cooties. Or something.

I, for one, can attest to the falsity of these entrenched tenets of Orthodoxy. I spent part of Tuesday night standing next to my mother in shul and still managed to not follow the service like a pro — I must have lost my place at least a dozen times.

Point is, if I were a woman and a member of an Orthodox shul (neither of which I am) I wouldn’t go either. I have been to Central on Yom Kippur and peered into that upstairs balcony from whence the womenfolk look down upon the service happening below and I know that what goes on there is not so much prayer as it is… let’s go with “discussion of secular topics”, to be polite. I have no idea why anyone would even need to go to shul to sit and chat when the same thing could be done anywhere else, so why bother?

Another consequence of the gender segregation in shul is that it breaks up families. One relative observed to me that he has a wife and three children and cannot be with them the whole day if they go to shul, so they don’t — and his wife has a very prominent educational role in our community.

Meanwhile, I have also been in the men’s section at the back of Central and found a lesser version of the experience of the women’s section. At least you are not totally excluded from the service and do get the occasional opportunity to reach out and touch the Torah scroll with your tallit as some dude walks by carrying it, but there is still a lot of gossiping and not much davening at all.

One thing it is most certainly not is any kind of spiritual experience — and yet the rabbis wonder why nobody shows up on any other day of the year.

Well, I think it’s a shame. I will stop here because this post is too long already, but bear with me and I will soon explain why I think YK is important and the kinds of things we could be doing instead.

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Apologies: thought for the season

For those readers who aren’t aware (I’m pretty sure at least one of you isn’t Jewish), we are currently in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which Jews are obligated to remember all our sins and apologise so that god will give us a nice mention in the Book of Life, or something like that.

What has got me writing is an experience that I had recently where a few people let me down  and then asked me to forgive them — which seemed like a rather appropriate thing to do given the festive season (I will not go into the specifics because some of them may be reading this).

At this point, it is worth noting the difference between the Jewish concept of ‘atonement’ and the Christian concept of repentance. In Christian theology, Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, which means that we need to just turn to him and repent and our sins are absolved. It is a very black-and-white idea — sin and you go to hell, repent and you go to heaven.

For Jews, it is not quite so easy. We are required not just to repent, but to actually make amends for things that we have done wrong. Our bad deeds are weighed-up against our good deeds and we are judged on that basis. We are supposed to spend these 10 days atoning, which means delivering sincere apologies to all those whom we have wronged over the past year.

I came across a useful example in an article about teaching kids to apologise, which directed me to this poem:

This Is Just To Say

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I have a feeling that I’m plagiarising some great Jewish thinker whose name escapes me, but I see three components in a sincere apology:

1) I was wrong. This means expressing regret for actions and not just consequences. It is the difference between saying “I’m sorry that I ate the plums” and not “I’m sorry that I upset you by eating the plums”. Notice that the second does not actually admit that eating the plums was wrong, it actually makes the quite hurtful implication that it is the person who was saving the plums that is at fault because they are overreacting to something that was not itself wrong.

2) I won’t do it again. This is just as important as admitting fault. There is no real point in expressing regret for something if you would just do it again next time. If you cannot commit to not repeating whatever you are apologising for, it is telling the person to whom you are apologising that they are less important to you than whatever you gained from the conduct for which you are apologising.

3) I promise to make it up to you. This one is not always possible, so only applies to some situations. While it is very possible to replace the plums that you ate, if you were cheating on your spouse, there’s not much that you could do except to promise never to do it again.

The last stanza of the poem contains what some might call an apology, however it is more a plea for forgiveness. The protagonist is not actually sorry for eating the plums and does not fulfil the steps outlined above. The only regret is that whoever they are talking to now cannot have the plums that were being saved for breakfast, and so is probably upset. It’s a classic disingenuous apology — “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings”, instead of “I was wrong,  I won’t do it again and I will do what I can to make it up to you.”

From my perspective, it is not worth apologising unless you are actually willing to change your behaviour in accordance with the apology. Doing so is worse than not apologising at all, because it is dishonest. Your goal is to placate a person’s response to actions that you do not in fact regret. You would be better-off just accepting the consequences of your actions.

It is very easy to apologise for something that was genuinely an error, because you will not intend to repeat an error. What is far more difficult is apologising in situations, such as eating the plums, where you did something for your own benefit that hurt another person. For that reason, doing so is all the more meaningful — it says to the person “I was selfish, but I value you and in future I will be more considerate of your feelings.”

If your apology was not sincere, you are in effect admitting that the person to whom you are apologising is less important to you than whatever the benefit was from what you did. I find this quite insulting, I would much sooner know where I stand with someone than have them pretend that they care about how I feel.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that little drosha. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll write something smartass and political soon enough.

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Ivory tower watch: sure you hate the homosexuals, but if you kill Americans you are in the ‘global left’

Pro-BDS, ‘post-structuralist’ academic Judith Butler has controversially been given some German award that nobody had heard of until they decided to give it to her. But apparently is a big deal in the city of Frankfurt.

I, for one, am completely indifferent outraged!

Well, when I say ‘for one’, what I mean is ‘as one of many’. This incident seems to have sparked a bombardment of Frankfurt the likes of which have not been seen since… the Allies dropped 12,197 tons of explosives on the city in the World War II (more like: World War TOO soon).

Anyway, as Kenan Malik explains, Butler is known less for supporting BDS and more for her godawful writing, which is almost impossible to understand and, for those who have the patience to get their heads around it, says nothing very interesting anyway.

Oh, and there was also this little doozy that seems to have been brought-up a fair bit during said bombardment of Frankfurt:

Benjamin Weinthal and Richard Landes: The Post-Self-Destructivism of Judith Butler – WSJ.com.

Participating in an “Anti-War Teach-In” at Berkeley in 2006, Ms. Butler answered a question about Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s place “in the global left.” These are two of the most belligerent movements within the warmongering, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic world of Islamist jihad. Yet while criticizing violence and “certain dimensions of both movements,” Ms. Butler told the students that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”

And there we go: exactly what I’ve been complaining about all this time! This is a self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ claiming two groups to her cause that are not merely conservative, but are actually bent on returning to a 7th Century society in which homosexuals were hung, adulterers were stoned to death and women were neither seen nor heard unless they were being beaten or raped, in which case it was probably their fault and they may be liable for death by stoning since they did technically commit adultery while they were being raped.

Oh and that’s not to mention the whole ‘driving the Jews into the ocean’ thing. Or the part about going to heaven for killing a Jew.

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn progressive to me. Lucky we have people on the global left to fight against injustice by firing rockets towards civilian areas and hoping to hit something.

*sigh*

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Yom Kippur bike rental and the Israeli anti-freedom lobby

Chaim Eckstein thinks that the Tel Aviv municipality has gone too far in not suspending their bike rental service on Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur bike rental – secular fanaticism – Israel Opinion, Ynetnews.

Suspending the bike rental service on Yom Kippur does not constitute capitulation to the religious community, and it has nothing to do with religious coercion. Why? Because Yom Kippur is not a religious day; it is an Israeli day. It is one of the state’s symbols.

You do not have to observe the Torah and the mitzvahs to deem Yom Kippur a holy day. Even avid seculars fast on Yom Kippur. Even those who regularly eat bacon with cheese feel uncomfortable upon hearing that an Israeli who plays for a European basketball team took part in a game that was held on Yom Kippur. Eat falafel, go to a barbecue but also fast one day a year – this is what it means to be Israeli in modern times.

That may be true, but these avid seculars may also want to ride a bike while they are fasting. Or maybe the 30% of Israelis who are not Jewish may want to ride a bike around Tel Aviv on a day when you can’t really drive. Or perhaps the tens of thousands of tourists that keep the Israeli economy running may want to ride a bike around Tel Aviv on that day.

Either way, who the hell is Chaim Eckstein to tell them they can’t?

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Ivory tower watch: we don’t need free speech protections when we have vague ideas instead

We’re doing well this week – the last ITW even had a response from the actual academic in question. Since I’m on a high, I figure I’ll let it ride – especially as I have just had the rather painful experience of trawling through ‘What to do about hate speech:
 an “institutionalised argumentation” model’ by Kath Gelber.

Gelber doesn’t believe that free speech protections are needed in racial vilification legislation, mostly because she has a magic formula to find out if a statement should be unlawful. First-off, I’ll highlight this passage if only because it re-affirms my general issue with social scientists trying to talk about law. The law faculty can’t be that far away, you would think that she could walk on over and ask about some of these issues before presenting a paper on them.

[I]t has been claimed that the public interest exception was necessary because Australia lacked specific constitutional protections of freedom of expression, although no evidence is provided to support a direct link between the lack of a constitutional free speech protection in Australia and the inclusion of the public interest exception in the legislation. Except for very general comments in parliamentary debate, very little concrete evidence exists that the specific terms or breadth of the exemptions were discussed in detail before the racial anti-vilification legislation was enacted in NSW. [references omitted, my bold]

How is this for evidence of a direct link: if there were a constitutional free speech protection, having the public interest exception built into the racial vilification provisions would be completely redundant as it would just be replicating protections that already exist. The US does not need to include free speech protections in any of its legislation because they are already covered by the first amendment.

But the paper is really about hate speech – Gelber thinks a theory by Jurgen Habermas is all that we need in determining whether a statement should be proscribed hate speech. The statement she chooses as the sole test example?

The incident concerns a woman who was the target of the following comments from occupants of another vehicle at a service station: “You black slut”, “You’re nothing but a coon”, “I’ve shot worse coons than you”.

Using Habermas’ theory, Gelber spends 7.5 pages determining that this statement is, in fact, discriminatory. I hope that comes as a shock to you, because I was certainly blown-away by the revelation.

To summarise her application of the theory:

  1. On one level, it is objectively determinable, and probably untrue, that the woman was, in fact, a ‘slut’ or ‘nothing but a coon’ (short for ‘racoon’) and whether speaker had actually shot any ‘coons’ before.
  2. The statement reinforced the idea that the black woman was inferior because she was black and a woman.
  3. We can’t really know why the person made the statement, but they are probably a racist.

I’m glad we sorted that one out. To me, that statement is pretty clear-cut racial vilification. In fact, it would probably be harassment even if there were no racial undertones. Maybe Gelber could have chosen something a little more ambiguous to test her theory on?

How, for instance, would this test apply to very black Aboriginal activist Bess Price saying to a very European-looking Aboriginal man, “Look, I didn’t know you were a blackfella as well because I’m sitting here and you look totally like a whitefella to me”? Or for Chris Graham, the Founder of the National Indigenous Times and another pale-skinned Aboriginal, calling Price a ‘grub’ in response?

A little more difficult, no? Let’s apply the formula to the first:

  1. Price probably did assume that the man was not Aboriginal.
  2. She was affirming a norm that does exist where appearing black is linked with Aboriginality. Society has a lot of difficulty in determining if this is valid, but it is hard to tell someone who looks like Price that it is not. This criterion is a little vague.
  3. Both Price and the man knew exactly what Price wanted to say.

And the second:

  1. Price is not, in fact, a ‘grub’.
  2. Well, Graham is technically Aboriginal, however there does seem to be something racist in a white-skinned man calling a black-skinned woman a ‘grub’.
  3. His intent was pretty clear: he found it offensive that his Aboriginal appearance was being called into question by Price.

Should this be proscribed conduct? Not so sure now, are we?

But the worst part really is the ‘policy’ that Gelber puts forward at the end:

Might there be mechanisms other than apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs that might respond more effectively to hate speech?

One alternative is to provide a hate speech policy which allows for the generation of speech which aims to counter the claims of the hate speakers. This means providing an assisted response to those who would seek to contradict and counter the effects of hate-speech-acts. This means that victims and victim groups would be empowered to respond to, and to seek to contradict, the impact of and the discrimination embodied in, the utterance.

She then spends a while explaining the benefits of this idea. The problem is, this is not really a ‘policy’ – it is a goal.

Apologies, retraction, fines and workplace-based educational programs are policies – they are things that can be implemented in the event that the Act is breached. Allowing the oppressed person to counter the claims of the speaker is not a policy. A policy could be, say, forcing the abuser to sit down with the abused and have at it – although I would question the effectiveness of this.

What I do know is that these vague alternatives have not convinced me that we can get rid of free speech protections in our racial vilification laws.

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