Monday, June 29, 2009

I'm at it again: Die Judenfrage and religious identity

Most Jews must be heartily sick of being forever singled out for discussion and scrutiny but it seems that it was ever so and ever will be. And in my utter folly, I am once again going to voice a few thoughts on one of the most hotly contested topics among Jews: Who is a Jew?

My present thoughts arise from the "wise" British judges who recently decided that Jews are a race. Since there are Jews of all races -- including black ones -- that is arrant nonsense. Yet it is also partly true -- in that various genetic studies have shown that many Jews do still have in them some Middle Eastern genes. So for Jews as a whole it is true that Israel is their ancestral home as well as their religious home.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that Jews are a religion, not a race. And the test of that, it seems to me, is that Jews do accept converts. Try converting yourself into another race: It can't be done.

But many Jews are atheists or something close to it, so how can Jewry be a religion? The easy answer to that from an Orthodox viewpoint (with which I am broadly sympathetic) is that being Jewish is not a matter of belief but of practice. A Jew is someone who follows Jewish law (halacha). What you believe is very secondary. Deeds speak louder than words. Christianity is belief based but Judaism is practice based.

But there is also a much simpler answer: MOST religion is hereditary. And those who inherit it are often not zealous practitioners of it. My late father, for instance, always put his religion down on official forms as "C of E" ("Church of England") and had no hesitation in doing so. He in fact seemed rather proud of it. Yet in all the time I knew him, he never once set foot inside an Anglican church.

So why cannot Jews be the same? Even if you are not religious, you can still have a religious identity.

Because I am an atheist, I never bothered with getting my son Christened but I considered that a knowledge of Christianity was an important element of his cultural heritage so I sent him to a Catholic school -- in the view that Catholics still had enough cultural self-confidence to teach the Christian basics. And they did. And my son greatly enjoyed his religion lessons -- as I hoped he would.

When he was aged 9 however, he said that he wanted to become a Catholic, which of course I was delighted to arrange. So he was baptised and subsequently had his confirmation lessons and was confirmed. These days many years later his beliefs seem to be as skeptical as mine -- which I also expected -- so what motivated his desire to become a Catholic? He wanted to have a religious identity. There was no pressure on him but he was greatly impressed by some very faith-filled people in the church and he wanted to identify with that. And I imagine that he still puts himself down on forms as "Catholic".

So a religious identity can be quite a significant thing for many people, not only Jews. It is a part of belonging -- and that is a very basic human need. Jews in a way are lucky there. No matter what their beliefs are, they still know that there is always one place where they belong, if they ever want to acknowledge it.

Once or twice a year I still attend my local Presbyterian church (at Easter etc.) and I certainly feel that I belong there. I feel at home with all aspects of it. My mother was a Presbyterian of sorts so that was where I was sent as a kid for Sunday School -- and that has stayed with me even though I no longer believe. So, again, one can have and value a religious identity even if one's beliefs have very little to do with it.

And the lady in my life -- Anne -- is only very vaguely religious but her background religion is Presbyterian and there are many habits of mind she has which I know well from my own family, and with which I am therefore very much at ease. Sometimes when she speaks, I hear my mother and my aunties speaking too. She has a Presbyterian mind, or a Presbyterian way of thinking -- perhaps Presbyterian assumptions. I think that in a similar way, most Jews probably have a Jewish mind too. Attitudes and habits of thought may in fact be the most important parts of a religious heritage.

I am sure that everything I have said above will be mumbo jumbo to most Leftists but, if so, that is their loss.


Iran's Basij militia are the new Sturm Abteilung (Even if their shirts aren't brown)

Picture of some original brownshirts below

They have become the face of repression since Iran's disputed June 12 elections, but the auxiliary security force known as the Basij once played a heroic role. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, volunteers as young as 13 in the Basij-e Mostazafan, or "Mobilization of the Oppressed," walked through minefields to defend their country against the invading forces of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In the years that followed, however, the Basij have become the enforcers of the Islamic republic, charged with putting down protests and policing behavior and dress. Since anti-government demonstrations erupted after allegations of massive fraud in Iranian presidential elections, "the Basij are everywhere. In the streets, in the newspapers, on television," said Mohsen Javani, a high school student in Tehran.

Protests have dwindled in the past few days since the deaths of more than 200 demonstrators and the arrests of several hundred opposition figures, said spokesmen for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Eyewitness reports and videos sent by Iranians through social network sites have shown Basij members on motorcycles beating protesters....

Many Iranians suspect that a member of the Basij fatally shot Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman whose death on the street in Tehran on June 20 has become the iconic image of Iran's pro-democracy movement. Arash Hejazi, an Iranian doctor who said he tried to save Miss Agha-Soltan, told the British Broadcasting Corp. last week that he was at the scene and protesters saw a member of the Basij on a motorcycle nearby who was shouting, "I didn't want to kill her." ...

Mr. Mohammadi said "Western propaganda" was trying to defame the Basij to "undermine such a strong defensive force." During the Iran-Iraq war, "they defended Iran just as the Kamikaze defended Japan," he said.

For many Iranians, however, the Basij have evolved since that war into Iran's unofficial morality police, responsible for enforcing Islamic dress codes, questioning couples about their marital status and raiding mixed-gender parties.

They also have been used in the past to clamp down on protesters, including students and women's rights advocates.

"They are very devout, with strong conviction that what they are defending is so important that they are willing to die and kill their own brothers, sisters and neighbors," said an Iranian-American protester in Tehran who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmad. To some of the lower-class youths who join the organization, "it's like [being] a glorified Boy Scout," he said.

There is another reason young Iranians become members of the Basij: money. "We are getting paid 200,000 toman [about $200] a day by the government," a member of the group said in an e-mail made available to The Times. "We are being instructed to go into the streets and hit people, everyone and anyone who is out, until they can no longer get up. We are being fed lunch and dinner and given rooms to sleep in at night in undisclosed locations."



Obama could learn from the Gipper

President Obama finally found his voice on Iran this week, saying the world was "appalled and outraged" by the regime's suppression of peaceful protests. Mr. Obama also hinted that he was prepared to reconsider direct negotiations with the regime. "We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community," he said. "What we've been seeing over the last several days, the last couple of weeks, obviously is not encouraging in terms of the path." So where do we go from here, particularly now that demonstrations are abating in the face of increased repression?

One place to begin is by studying the example of U.S. policy toward Solidarity, the Polish trade union that challenged the Communist regime in the early 1980s. As with the "Green Revolution" in Iran, Solidarity did not begin as a frontal assault on the regime itself, but rather as a peaceful shipyard strike. But it quickly grew into a broad social movement, encompassing shipyard and factory workers, intellectuals, priests and nearly everyone who didn't have a direct stake in the regime's survival.

The U.S. initially adopted a cautious approach toward Solidarity. The Carter Administration rewarded the Polish government with foreign loans and credits for not cracking down on the movement. Then-Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan also took a restrained view, saying he "didn't believe it was our place to intervene in a purely domestic affair." But Solidarity gained greater traction with the American public and particularly with Lane Kirkland's AFL-CIO, which began collecting donations for Solidarity while refusing to off-load cargo from Polish ships.

Not surprisingly -- and as with Iran today -- these expressions of public sympathy gave the regimes in Warsaw and Moscow the opportunity to blame the West for "meddling," even as the U.S. gave Poland financial and food aid. But that ended in December 1981 after Warsaw imposed martial law, to which Reagan responded by suspending Poland's most-favored-nation trading status and imposing sanctions.

Reagan also offered Solidarity crucial political support, even when the movement seemed crushed. "There are those who will argue that the Polish Government's action marks the death of Solidarity," he said in an October 1982 radio address. "I don't believe this for a moment. Those who know Poland well understand that as long as the flame of freedom burns as brightly and intensely in the hearts of Polish men and women as it does today, the spirit of Solidarity will remain a vital force in Poland."

That support did not go unnoticed inside Poland, despite the arrest of Solidarity's leaders and thousands of others. The U.S. government also coordinated with the AFL-CIO, which smuggled money, printing presses and other equipment necessary to keep Solidarity an active, underground force.

Also crucial was Pope John Paul II, with whom Reagan coordinated a clandestine aid program. It was an angle Reagan understood intuitively: "I have a feeling," he wrote a friend in July 1981, "particularly in view of the Pope's visit to Poland, that religion might very well turn out to be the Soviets' Achilles' heel."

The Church's involvement made a martyr of Jerzy Popieluszko, the charismatic priest whose sermons were broadcast on Radio Free Europe until his murder, by the secret police, in 1984. The confrontation served to underscore that the regime was morally bankrupt and could only be sustained by force. Ultimately, it was brought down by the combination of internal rebellion, economic pressure, Western support for Solidarity and a Soviet patron no longer prepared to send in tanks. When parliamentary elections were finally held in 1989 -- before the fall of the Berlin Wall -- Solidarity took every seat but one.

Today's Iran is different in many respects from 1980s Poland. The Iranian economy is a shambles, but the regime can sustain itself through oil and gas exports. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can claim his own religious authority. And opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi appears to be a man more in the mold of an Alexander Dubcek than Lech Walesa.

Then again, the Iranian regime is now openly detested by a huge segment of the population, which has produced its own roster of martyrs. The repression has united the opposition and inspired global support, including some prominent former apologists for the mullahs. A large and restive trade union movement could become a locus of opposition, as could a growing number of prominent Shiite theologians who reject the idea of theocratic rule. The country is profoundly vulnerable to a gasoline embargo, for which there is pending legislation in Congress. Digital links to the outside world make it nearly impossible for the regime to arrest or murder dissidents without the world noticing.

All of which means that there are opportunities for the Obama Administration to exploit, provided it envisions a democratic and peaceful Iran as a strategic American aim. That doesn't mean military confrontation with the mullahs. But it does require taking every opportunity to apply consistent pressure on Iran while exploiting its internal tensions and contradictions.

"I often wondered why Ronald Reagan did this, taking the risks he did, in supporting us at Solidarity," Mr. Walesa wrote in these pages after Reagan died in 2004. "Let's remember that it was a time of recession in the U.S. and a time when the American public was more interested in their own domestic affairs. It took a leader with a vision to convince them that there are greater things worth fighting for."

The circumstances aren't so different. With similar vision and leadership, the endgame could be the same.



Silence Has Consequences for Iran

The less we protest, the more people will die

By JOSÉ MARIA AZNAR (Mr. Aznar is the former prime minister of Spain: 1996-2004)

If there hadn't been dissidents in the Soviet Union, the Communist regime never would have crumbled. And if the West hadn't been concerned about their fate, Soviet leaders would have ruthlessly done away with them. They didn't because the Kremlin feared the response of the Free World.

Just like the Soviet dissidents who resisted communism, those who dare to march through the streets of Tehran and stand up against the Islamic regime founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago represent the greatest hope for change in a country built on the repression of its people. At stake is nothing less than the legitimacy of a system incompatible with respect for individual rights. Also at stake is the survival of a theocratic regime that seeks to be the dominant power in the region, the indisputable spiritual leader of the Muslim world, and the enemy of the West.

The Islamic Republic that the ayatollahs have created is not just any power. To defend a strict interpretation of the Quran, Khomeini created the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard, which today is a true army. To expand its ideology and influence Iran has not hesitated to create, sustain and use proxy terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. And to impose its fundamentalist vision beyond its borders, Iran is working frantically to obtain nuclear weapons.

Those who protest against the blatant electoral fraud that handed victory to the fanatical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are in reality demanding a change of regime. Thus, the regime has resorted to beating and shooting its citizens in a desperate attempt to squash the pro-democracy movement.

This is no time for hesitation on the part of the West. If, as part of an attempt to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the leaders of democratic nations turn their backs on the dissidents they will be making a terrible mistake.

President Obama has said he refuses to "meddle" in Iran's internal affairs, but this is a poor excuse for passivity. If the international community is not able to stop, or at least set limits on, the repressive violence of the Islamic regime, the protesters will end up as so many have in the past -- in exile, in prison, or in the cemetery. And with them, all hope for change will be gone.

To be clear: Nobody in the circles of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or Ahmadinejad is going to reward us for silence or inaction. On the contrary, failing to support the regime's critics will leave us with an emboldened Ahmadinejad, an atomic Iran, and dissidents that are disenchanted and critical of us. We cannot talk about freedom and democracy if we abandon our own principles.

Some do not want to recognize the spread of freedom in the Middle East. But it is clear that after decades of repression -- religious and secular -- the region is changing.

The recent elections in Lebanon are a clear example. The progressive normalization of Iraq is another. It would be a shame, particularly in the face of such regional progress, if our passivity gave carte blanche to a tyrannical regime to finish off the dissidents and persist with its revolutionary plans.

Delayed public displays of indignation may be good for internal political consumption. But the consequences of Western inaction have already materialized. Watching videos of innocent Iranians being brutalized, it's hard to defend silence.



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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)


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