Monday, November 30, 2009

Of Minarets and Muezzins

Two interesting news stories about the relationship between State and Religion in Western countries.

The news stories are abuzz with the Swiss Referendum which voted to ban construction of new Minarets in Switzerland.

At the same time there is a law being drafted here in Israel by MK Aryeh Bibi (Kadima) which would limit the Muezzin, the pre-dawn call to prayer which disrupts the sleep of many people who live near a Mosque (including in many mixed cities like Jerusalem, Haifa, or Chevron where many Jewish residents are also woken with the 4:00 call to prayer).

I found the results of the Swiss referendum alarming. To me it is amazing that there could be a restriction on religious buildings in a Western Democracy – although Switzerland has a strange relationship with religious minorities. Shchita has been banned in Switzerland for a long time, and many Cantons prohibit religious cemeteries (the Jewish Cemetery in Geneva is on the French border, and technically in France, not Switzerland).

But even with the limits on religion in Switzerland, I still find this blanket ban puzzling. I could understand if there were specific building codes that Minarets have to confirm to, just as I am sure that there are building codes for Church bell towers or other structures.

But a blanket ban on all new minarets seems to be pure and simply hostility to all Muslims, and this is the essence of the Problem.

Yes there have been many horrific acts carried out in the name of Islam. According to radical Islam has carried out more than 14,000 deadly terror attacks since 9-11. I don’t think that any other religious or political group has carried out even close to that number. I’m still trying to find a list of recent Lutheran or Unitarian terrorist attacks, but I’m reasonably certain that it’s less than 14,000.

But if almost all recent terrorist attacks have been carried out in the name of Islam, it does not follow that all Muslims are terrorists. In fact the opposite is true, the vast majority of Muslims are as repulsed by this abuse and mis-use of religion as anyone. In fact moderate Muslims are probably more upset as it reflects badly on them and their community (is there an Islamic equivalent of “Chillul HaShem”?)

And that is the problem with the proposed ban in Switzerland. It does not differentiate between moderate Muslims and radical Islamists. In fact it does the opposite, it lumps them all together in one basket.

To quote Daniel Pipes, "militant Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution". if we want to identify potential terrorists, we can’t declare war on Islam, rather we should work with moderate Muslims to strengthen their influence within their own communities and at the same time try to identify and stop radical militant Islam.

Unfortunately the Swiss Referendum seems a giant step in the opposite direction.

If there is one silver lining in this vote, they have now clearly put the ball in the Muslim Community's court. The Muslim community can respond within the norms of democracy, to appeal the results in front of the courts, parliament, or in the media, or alternatively they can resort to violent protest.

Lets see what path the Muslim community adopt, and lets hope that their actions don’t prove that the ban was justified, or at least justifiable.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is the really anti-Semitism out there?

I often get upset when people look for anti-Semitism in places where it doesn’t exist.

You can be critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. A joke about the Holocaust or a Rabbi may be in bad taste, but that doesn’t make you anti-Semitic. If your religious belief tells you that all non-believers (including Jews) are Damned, that doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, even if you make a movie about your religious beliefs.

That said, I think that we have to acknowledge that real anti-Semitism exists. Look at the security around Jewish institutions around the world – in many places Synagogues, Jewish schools. and even residential Jewish neighbourhoods and  have armed guards, security cameras, and a whole array of other security measures.

In many parts of the World, law enforcement agencies recommend against wearing a Kipa in public or any other visible signs of being Jewish.

There are no other religious groups that have this type of security. Mosques, Hindu temples, or Catholic churches do not require the type of security that we have around Jewish organizations.

But maybe we Jews are overly cautious, maybe the centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust have made us paranoid.

This week the world is marking the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. It is important to remember that the only specific target in the Mumbai attacks that was selected during those attacks because of the type of location (as opposed to the number of people likely to be there) was the Chabad House.

And this has nothing to do with the “plight of the Palestinians” or “Israeli Atrocities”, it wasn’t an Israeli target that was selected, it was a Jewish Religious target, with no official links to Israel.

But what about hatred of other religious minorities? We are constantly hearing about “Islama-phobia”, especially since 9-11 when there was allegedly a lot of hatred expressed towards Islam.

Well the statistics don’t seem to show that. According to the recently published 2008 FBI Hate Crime Statics last year in the United States (arguably one of the safest countries to be visibly Jewish, outside of Israel) there were 1519 Hate Crimes based on Religion. 1013 of those incidents targeted Jews. I.e, two thirds of all religious motivated Hate Crimes were against Jews. (I’d be curious to know how many of those incidents were carried out by Muslims, but I digress…)

By contrast, there were 105 anti-Islam incidents reported. Sounds like “Islama-phobia” is not as serious as some people would have us believe.

There were more reported Hate Crimes against Jews than there were against gays, or all other religious groups together. The only group which was the victim of a higher number of Hate Crimes was the Black community (2876 reported incidents). Which is terrible, but remember that there are over 40 Million Blacks in the US, i.e., a community 6 times greater than the Jewish community experienced less than 3 times the number of reported incidents.

Clearly all Hate crime should be eliminated, but it looks like the Jewish community is not necessarily paranoid if it argued that Jews have been singularly targeted as victims.

Lets hope and pray that the 2009 statistics show a decrease of hate crimes against all minorities, but just in case, maybe Jews outside of Israel should get in touch with their local Aliya Shaliach.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Between Life and Death

We all know that Ariel Sharon has been in a Coma for almost four years. hovering between life and death and as far as anyone knows, he has little or no awareness of the world around him.

There have been many jokes about what would happen if he woke up, and earlier this year there were (mistaken) reports that he was becoming more responsive, but I don’t think that anyone believes that Sharon will ever again be able to interact fully with the world around him.

On a related topic, in the US there has been a lot of talk about end of life care and how it will be effected if Obama’s health proposal is passed into law. People have been tossing around terms like ‘Death Panels” and “Right to Die”.

Judaism has always regarded human life as supremely important, and regards even life in a Vegetative State important enough to safeguard. We are obligated to break Shabbat if it would allow us to extend the life of comatose patient for even a few minutes.

Have you ever stopped to think about what it must be like on the “other side”. Imagine if you lost full control of your body, unable to move of communicate, but fully conscious and aware of everything going on around you. Can you imagine a worse fate than lying there fully conscious while everyone assumed you were brain dead.

That is the situation that is being reported about Rom Houben. According to reports, for 23 years doctors assumed that Mr Houben was comatose and effectively brain-dead when in fact he was fully conscious, just without any control over his body. The reports say that for 23 years hey lay there, wanting to scream out, but unable to move.

According to the report, today he is able to communicate through a computer, and they have given him books to read via a screen over his bed.

May Mr Houben live many more years now that he has been restored to the world of the living.

Post Script: After I wrote this post, I saw the story in today's Jerusalem Post about Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Ya'acov Litzman insisting that doctors at Schneider Children's Medical Center follow the wishes of a patient's family and treat a lower-brain-dead baby girl like an ordinary living patient and give her antibiotics and other treatment.

The hospital is angry at the Rabbi for interfering with medical decisions.

I am no expert on the Halachic or medical issues surrounding brain-dead patients. I have no idea how the diagnosis of "lower-brain-dead" compares to "vegetative State" which was the mis-diagnosis that Mr Houben suffered with for 23 years, however I would have though that it is the responsibility of the hospital to respect the end-of-life wishes of a family, and it shouldn't take interference from a Deputy Minister to see that the family's wishes are followed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Protests for the sake of Protesting

I’m very happy that in spite of the Chilul HaShem in last week’s protests against Intel, the Intel management has agreed to find a compromise to the issue of Shabbat by reducing the Shabbat staff to a bear minimum and only employing non-Jews on Shabbat.

I’m not an expert on the laws of “Goy Shel Shabbat” and I don’t know the details of how the arrangement has been set up, but according to the Jerusalem Post, the agreement meets the approval of Rav Elyashiv, arguably the biggest posek in the Ashkenaz world today.

Apparently this agreement was already being worked out a week ago before the last Shabbat’s demonstration (although had not yet been put into practice) which shows that the demonstration was not only a massive Chilul HaShem but also unnecessary, it may have even been counter-productive. I can see that other companies may have responded to a demonstration like we saw last week by calling off any previous arrangements and Davka opening on Shabbat to prove that they wont be intimidated by thugs in black hats.

Fortunately Intel management acted very “grown up” and is moving ahead with the arrangement approved by Rav Elyashiv. So everyone’s happy – right? Wrong!

According to the same Jerusalem Post article, the Av Beit Din of the Eida Haredit Rabbi Tuvia Weiss does not approve of the deal and is calling for a demonstration anyway.

I am surprised that Rabbi Weiss regards himself as a bigger Posek than Rav Elyashiv, I guess he doesn’t believe in the concept of ‘Daas Torah”, or at least only accepts “Daas Torah” when it means causing trouble.

The article also didn’t say if Dayan Weiss had an alternative solution that would allow Intel to stay in business. Remember Intel is one of Israel’s biggest exporters and maintaining a plant in Jerusalem is a huge boost for the Nation’s capital. But these simple economics don’t seem to be of interest to Rabbi Weiss.

I sincerely hope that the Haredi community turns to rabbi Weiss and says “Enough is Enough” surely they would rather spend Shabbat at home with their families, than publicly go out to desecrate both Shabbat and Hashem’s name.

Lets hope that this week the capital really has a Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Support of Chilul Shabbat

Again the peace of Shabbat in Jerusalem was shattered by rioting by Haredi Zealots.

It is a tragic state of affairs that in the recent unrest in Jerusalem, my sympathies and support is with those who are Michalel Shabbat.

In the recent Intel riots, according to reports (which I had independently confirmed via a Haredi Jew who works for Intel), the Haredi demonstrators were not only responsible for a massive Chilul HaShem, but there was also mass Chilul Shabbat (breaking into the building, encouraging police and journalists to come out) and on top of it all, Chilul Kodesh as they broke into the Beit Knesset in Intel and threw Siddurim and Sifrei Kodesh on the floor, as well as destroying furniture.

I have always believed that as a religious Jew I have more in common with other religious Jews, than with Jews who are removed from Jewish Tradition. It is much easier to find a place to eat or daven or learn in any Haredi neighbourhood than it is in a predominately secular area.

However in recent events it seems that a segment of the Hardei community is as far removed from the Torah and Jewish Tradition as the most extreme secular.

Forcing police to break Shabbat in order to control a riot, or violating Shabbat through breaking property or throwing stones show that these people have very little understanding of what Shabbat is.

Destroying public property like garbage cans or traffic lights show that these people have no appreciation for the laws of Nezikin.

Screaming insults and throwing objects at other Jews shows that these people are severely lacking in Ahavat Yisrael.

And finally desecrating a Beit Knesset (which was in a different Intel building, NOT the one open on Shabbat) show that these people are severely lacking in their Ahavat HaShem.

Rav Kook said that even the most secular Jew is still Holy. He may be mis-guided, but his intentions are Holy, which is why we see many worthy causes being lead be “Secular” Jews, they are looking for the Holiness in the Profane.

It seems like the leaders of these Hardedi riots are looking for the Profane in the Holiness.

It is time for the main stream Haredi community to publicly distance itself from these extremists.

Post Script: Upon re-reading my post, I guess that I should emphasize that I don't "support" Chillul Shabbat, as my first paragraph may have implied. I am 100% opposed to any form of Chilul Shabbat, and I hope that Intel are able to work with Rabbinic Authorities and maybe Machon Tzomet to find a solution to their Shabbat needs within the confines of Halacha.

What I was trying to say, that if there is anything worse than a company breaking Shabbat, it is the Haredi demonstrations which are not only a Chilul Shabbat, but also a Chilul HaShem. There are much better ways to encourage Shabbat observance in this country.