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Archive for June, 2010

Following on from my interview with Matisyahu last week, here is an uplifting video to start the new week. If you’re familiar with Matisyahu’s song One Day that’s an advantage, but this video should hopefully put a smile on everyone’s face. Happy Monday, everyone!

Thoughts and prayers are with Gilad Shalit and his family. Here are some ways you can help. Also, there is a specific prayer for the MIAs here.

I wish all my Jewish readers shabbat shalom and all my readers a wonderful weekend.

This time five years ago Israel was preparing to withdraw from Gaza. It was a contentious move, not least for the settlers who were uprooted from their homes on the orders of Ariel Sharon, a man who had previously been a cheerleader for the settlement movement. The scenes of Jewish families being dragged from their homes by Israeli soldiers were heartbreaking, as was the realisation that the graves of the evacuees’ relatives would need to be exhumed.

But even before these gut-wrenching scenes, the disengagement made little sense to me. I’m in awe of the way Israel has always taken tough decisions in the interest of its own security. After all, good leaders are willing to sacrifice their own popularity in the interests of good, and they will look to the long-term as much as the short.

Five years on is too soon to constitute the long-term, but it is still an appropriate time to consider what followed the disengagement. In the immediate aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal Palestinian mobs destroyed the lucrative greenhouse industry that had been left behind, along with the synagogues. Terrorists then increased the rate of rocket fire that rained down on southern Israel.

Emboldened by the sense that it had Israel ‘on the run’ Hamas grabbed power in 2007 and imposed its oppressive ways on the Palestinians, including inhumane control of the aid sent their way. As a result of the Hamas threat both Israel and Egypt ‘blockaded’ Gaza. Thousands of rockets and mortars continued to be fired into Israel. Eventually Operation Cast Lead was launched in response, leading to civilian deaths on both sides of the conflict.

I support Israel’s right and duty to defend itself. I just wonder whether anyone has really benefited from the disengagement. Not Israel, in my view. In my years of taking a strong and supportive interest in Israel I’ve never known it to seem quite so vulnerable and so unfairly vilified. Sadly, as we saw after the withdrawal from Lebanon, and again after the Camp David offer was turned down by Arafat, world opinion does not seem to respond favourably  to concessions from Israel.

On the contrary, the more Israel gives the more the world seems to hate it. To blame the growing regional threats and the increase in the world’s blind bigotry on the disengagement would a huge oversimplification. But I still struggle to see how life has been become anything other than more hazardous for both Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza during the last five years. As a huge admirer of Ariel Sharon I occasionally find myself wondering what he would have made of the aftermath of the disengagement he ordered.

Whatever your view on this contentious issue I hope we all agree that those forced to leave Gush Katif deserve to be looked after properly by Israel. Sadly, a report released this month accuses successive Israeli governments of “absolute and complete failure” in dealing with the uprooted settlers who are said to have become “refugees in their own country”. The community they built in Gush Katif was beautiful and magical, it makes my heart ache to think of how they’ve been treated since they were torn from there.

I’ve never gone along with the blind hatred of settlers, who I fear are in danger of becoming the scapegoats of scapegoats. Many of them had and still have low incomes, which is also true of many of residents of the city of Sderot who got a raw deal from the disengagement themselves in the form of increased rocket fire.

I support Israel all the way as it faces both its regional enemies and the bullying bigots the of wider world. But its seemingly shambolic and negligent treatment of the former residents of Gush Katif makes me angry and sad. They deserve much better.

The above is my latest column for Jewish News. You can read Jewish News online here.

You might also like to watch the documentary Home Game, which documents the final days of Gusk Katif via the experiences of an Israeli basketball team. You can also read here about the community of Netzer Hazani, who were uprooted from their homes and are now striving to rebuild the town.

Matisyahu’s new album Light is released in the UK this week. I think it’s a brilliant piece of work – more musically and thematically varied than his previous releases. It includes the song One Day, which was adopted as the official anthem of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Other stand-out tracks include the mellow yet uplifting I Will Be Light and the extraordinarily powerful Silence. I spoke with Matisyahu about what aspects of Hasidism influenced Light, keeping kosher on the road, his move away from Chabad and other matters….

How easy is it for you, as you tour and play at rock festivals, to keep kosher and observe the other aspects of your Jewish faith, life and identity?
Easy?  I don’t know if the best way to describe anything worthwhile is easy. One the one hand it’s like anything – once you do something over and over again it becomes habit so it’s not like I’m constantly tempted to go out on shabbes or eat non-kosher food.  That was a very difficult thing to do when I was first becoming religious but I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now. The hard thing is to keep moving, to keep re-evaluating and pushing oneself to new understandings of what these things mean.  For example if you know that 99.9 per cent of the chicken in America comes from factory farms where they are treated horribly, fed antibiotics so they don’t all die because of how they’re treated, etc, etc – is it kosher to eat them?  Well it seems most if not all the Jewish world says it’s ok but I say that’s missing the whole concept and spirit of what keeping kosher is all about.  So I am usually trying to keep moving forward in my knowledge and application of mitzvahs regardless of what everyone around me is doing. This is hard.

Light is a more varied piece of work than your previous collections, and your look has changed too. I understand you have also moved away from Chabad in recent years. How connected are these changes?
I became religious in 2001 and the following year I moved to Crown Heights to fully immerse myself in Chabad Lubavitch Hasidism. I started writing songs for my for my first record Shake Off The Dust in 2003 and many of those songs became the songs for Live At Stubbs.  At the time I was learning about Judaism from the Chabad perspective, so much of those first records were heavily influenced by the Tanya and teachings of Chabad rebbes along with basic ideas and principles of Kabbala and Jewish thought.  This was pretty much also the case for Youth, the follow up to Stubbs.  About three years ago, let’s say 2007, as I started preparing ideas for lyrics for Light, I began to study comparatively the teachings of Rebbe Nachman vs. Alter Rebbe, and found myself feeling much more drawn to his mad, disorganized, wild, and sometimes dark chassidus vs the very orderly, grand and scientific style of the Rebbe.  This became more the backdrop for the lyrics on the new record through the lens of Nachman’s story of the Seven Beggars.

Your song One Day is about a future of harmony and peace for mankind. What steps need to be taken to achieve such a future for Israel?
In general I have no major solutions to any world problems.  Knowledge is important, so is information. Besides that it starts with every individual being the best person they can be and the vision in Judaism of a utopian future while it may not be very practical is beautiful. That is where music and art comes in.  Music has the ability to take that concept for people and make it more than an idea but attach an emotion to it in the most accessible and passive way for the listener of any age or intelligence level.  It can wake up the dreamer or the dormant hope and belief that one has put to rest deep within.  This is where the seed of Mosiach is planted and will sprout from.

Can you remember where you were when you first heard that One Day was going to be the anthem of the winter Olympics?
I was driving in my RV in Austin and my manager called to tell me it was being considered.  I was very excited.  To have my song used at such a major event is an honor.

A British journalist called Johann Hari has accused you of wanting to demolish the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and he also says you won’t stage dive out of fear of touching a woman. Well, I personally saw you stage dive during a north London show. What is your response to his claims?
I would say they are pretty ignorant as he has never met or had a discussion with me.  He is basing his claims on assumptions and from the tone as you put it, they seem to be accusatory.  I don’t think that really gets anyone anywhere in the world we live in and in the current state of affairs.  It seems that to be compassionate and humble of spirit is much more difficult and that truth comes from this place not from anger. I think if people were to drop their assumptions and accusations and to truly try and understand where others are coming from, from the place of empathy and compassion, we would progress a lot further then we are now.

I love the tales of Rabbi Nachman, including The Seven Beggars. You say that tale influenced the new album. Can you expand on how you relate to this story and how it influenced your music?
Well I sort of got into it earlier.  It would be hard to really go into it but let me just say if you read the story and then listen to the record with lyrics including the bonus tracks, you will be able to make the connections for yourself.

Do you also enjoy the tales of the Baal Shem Tov? Might you write music influenced by him in the future?
Funny you should mention him.  I will be spending some time this fall at his grave site and working on concepts for a new record, which will more than likely be based on his teachings.  Stay tuned.

You can preview and buy Light on iTunes here and visit Matisyahu’s official website here.

This Friday marks the fourth anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has set up a webpage through which you can write a personal message to Gilad which will be delivered to the International Red Cross. Copies of each message will also be sent to Gilad’s parents, Noam and Aviva. You can send a message here.

There are events being held in various countries around the world to mark the anniversary, including quite a few in Israel and America. In Switzerland some cathedrals will be switching off their lights in solidarity with Gilad. True, such events won’t change the world overnight but every little does help – and I’d imagine news of such gestures means a lot to Gilad’s parents.

Here in Britain none of the main Jewish or Zionist organisations seem to have arranged anything. This is a shame. There has to be more to this movement than endless backslapping concerts. As a Facebook friend of mine – she is a Holocaust survivor – asked: “Why no demonstrations for Gilad Shalit in Western countries at least once a week? Why is the world silent? Why?”

There are things we can do individually, including writing to our MPs and telling friends about Gilad’s plight. So let’s remember Gilad this week and also the other Israeli soldiers who are MIAs (Missing In Action). Last year I attended a ‘tekes’ for Gilad in north London. Here is a prayer from that night, which might be of interest or use to you.

There was a powerful article by Leon de Winter in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. He analyses the fall-out of the flotilla incident and discusses what drives the selective hatred of Israel among European people.

De Winter begins with the Free Gaza group, which was behind the flotilla:

‘Well, Gaza is already free. Israel withdrew from the narrow strip five years ago. And there is also no need for any humanitarian aid. Well over a million tons of humanitarian supplies entered Gaza from Israel over the last 18 months, equaling nearly a ton of aid for every man, woman and child in Gaza.’

He then turns to the  absurd accusations of Israeli ‘genocide’ and tackles them with what he calls ‘lousy stubborn facts’, including infant mortality rates. De Winter also points out that:

‘Life expectancy at birth is 73.68 years in Gaza. And in Turkey, Gaza’s new protector, life expectancy is only 72.23 years. If the Israelis really wanted to make the lives of Palestinians short and nasty, then they are obviously doing something wrong.’

I would add that life expectancy in the West Bank has risen under Israeli ‘occupation’. It all adds up to a very strange kind of ‘genocide’.

De Winter then comes to a rousing conclusion about what drives Europeans to be so hateful towards Israel. I have to say that up until the flotilla incident I would have questioned his sort of analysis. But having witnessed the reaction to that incident I have to say that, with a heavy heart, I think his theory has weight:

‘Watching Israel’s demonization, the attack on its right to defend itself as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said, it becomes clear that there is a deep need among Europeans to call the Jews murderers. This is why the Palestinians, as “victims” of the Jews, are more important than the numerous Muslim victims of Muslim extremists; this is why millions of other Muslims living under worse conditions than the Palestinians hardly get any mention in the media; this is why Gaza is compared to the Warsaw Ghetto or Auschwitz. By calling the Israeli Nazis, the original Nazis have been legitimized.’

‘What we have witnessed with the Gaza flotilla is the perfect execution of a masterful piece of Islamist theater. The media’s wild indignation, an orgasm of hypocrisy, marks the next chapter in the long story of European hatred toward the Jews. It is salonfahig again to be an anti-Semite.’

It reminds me of the statement attributed to an Israeli psychoanalyst that: ‘The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz’.

You can read the whole of De Winter’s article here.

I am looking forward to watching the Extraordinary People documentary on Five this evening. It is about a wonderful girl called Hayley Okines. Hayley suffers from a genetic condition called Progeria. It is a rare illness: there are thought to be around 50 cases of Progeria around the world – two of them are in the UK. Progeria causes children’s bodies to fast-forward through the ageing process. They can suffer strokes and heart attacks as early as five years of age and die of heart disease at an average age of just 13 years.

I first heard about Progeria when Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about an Indian family where – astonishingly – five children suffered from this rare condition. It was terribly upsetting to see how they suffered but also inspiring to see how they retained humour and hope. You can watch the documentary here. I’ve tried in my own small way to raise awareness of Progeria since I watched it. When I ran my second marathon in 2006 I chose the Progeria Research Foundation to raise funds for.

Sadly, most of those Indian children have passed away now. Meanwhile, Hayley Okines and her family are heroes for our time. The hunt for a cure for Progeria is making progress all the time. I pray it comes soon. You can read more about the hunt for a cure here. Here is a trailer for tonight’s documentary. 

That the reaction of the Turkish government to the flotilla incident is petulant and dripping with hypocrisy goes without saying. The loosening of ties between Israel and Turkey is a shame, particularly since Turkey has been the only Muslim ally of Israel. In truth the split had been coming a while because the devout Muslim vote in Turkey has grown in recent years.

Tayyip Erdogan symbolically stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after insulting at Shimon Peres in the wake of Operation Cast Lead.  As Turkey now hurls further absurd insults and threats at Israel in the wake of the flotilla incident relations are more strained than ever. Given that Turkey shares a border with Syria this is not ideal. But there is a potential upside. I am hoping recent developments will lead to Israel reconsidering a policy I have never felt comfortable with.

The strong relations Israel built with Turkey came with an unpleasant price, as regional alliances around the world often do. Turkey demanded Israel’s silence during international condemnations of the Armenian genocide. As I understand it, Israeli history textbooks avoided discussion of the Armenian genocide as a result for instance. I know Israel faces tough realities and has to make tough decisions, but this all seemed a shame.

To be clear, I am not attempting to draw a parallel between the Shoah and the Armenian genocide. Neither do I go along with the oft-argued line that, because of what happened in the Shoah, Israel has a special responsibility to act morally. That is an offensive argument and in any case the largely restrained  way in which Israel has responded to six decades of brutality is a lesson in morality for the rest of the world.

I know it will not have been a stance taken lightly but Israel’s position on the Armenian genocide makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. I think it’s time to reconsider it. 

This is my latest column for Jewish News:

As a vocal supporter of Israel and an active blogger in defence of the Jewish state I long ago realised that some critics of Israel are so consumed with blind hatred that they might never emerge from the darkness of their self-imposed intellectual dungeons. However, I fought to remain optimistic that such cases formed only a small number of Israel’s critics. In the last few weeks this optimism has been truly shaken.

I’d always hesitated to jump to extreme conclusions about what motivates people to be so strongly, ignorantly and uniquely hostile to Israel. I told myself that they were usually not motivated by antisemitism or any other evil inclination, they were simply a little bit misguided and very ill-informed. If only they could be shown a more balanced picture, I hoped, they might quickly begin to develop a more sensible approach.

But people around the world saw the videos and photographs of what the Israeli commandos faced on those boats and still many refuse to accept what happened. When they were shown videos filmed by the flotilla passengers themselves proving that at least some on the fateful boat were proudly determined to provoke a violent confrontation and become ‘martyrs’ they still saw no evil and heard no evil. Even when relatives and friends of some of the dead confirmed what their motivation had been their words were broadly overlooked.

Then at the weekend we had photographs of the passengers’ brutality which they took and published themselves, but still it was not enough. It’s as if a suspect is in court pleading guilty to a crime and producing compelling evidence to prove his  guilt and yet people are sitting shaking their heads in the jury box and saying: “No, he doesn’t mean it, he’s not really guilty”. Israel, meanwhile, faced a different but sadly familiar standard of treatment in the court of public opinion: guilty until proven guilty.

In attempting to defend Israel one becomes accustomed to struggling through an obstacle course of double standards. These include that, unlike any of the world’s other conflicts or disputes, Israel is the one on which people who know little nonetheless speak lots. One rarely hears people commenting about, say, Sri Lanka’s war with the Tamil Tigers, the nomadic hostilities in Sudan or India’s battle with the Maoists unless they have a decent grasp of the issues involved. But people who know almost nothing about what is going on in the Middle East nonetheless feel not just permitted to comment on the matter but absolutely compelled to.

These ill-informed comments are nearly always hostile to Israel, but it is not just the ignorant who are making such disturbing noises. Politicians from all parties joined in the dishonest flotilla narrative and they should hang their heads in shame for their cowardice. It is because of their chorus of hatred that the solidarity demonstration arranged by the Zionist Federation last week was so important. In an upsetting week it proved comforting and inspiring to be among 700 other supporters of Israel, making our voices heard and proudly waving our Israeli flags.

We are a movement of wonderful people but let’s be honest, our level of activity and noise is generally put to shame by the other side. The more shows of strength we make the less inclined our politicians will feel to turn their backs on Israel as they did last week. We need to get our message spot on. Language is vital, so although it is perfectly true that Israel has a right to defend herself I feel this is too meek a statement, because the truth goes a lot deeper than that. Israel has an absolute duty to defend herself.

For the way it so morally and courageously does just that, the IDF has my wide-eyed respect.

You can read Jewish News online here.

Last Thursday British trade union Unite voted for a complete boycott of Israeli goods and services. Its motion accused Israel of having “a policy of ethnic clensing” and being “a terror state way beyond apartheid”.

On the same day that Unite was passing this motion, 15-year-old Muhammed Kalalwe was working in his family’s fields in Jenin, which is a Palestinian city in the West Bank. He noticed a deadly viper snake and before he could stop it the snake had bitten him on his right hand. He was soon in enormous pain and in imminent danger of death.

His father rushed him to Jenin Hospital but they lacked the correct anti-serum. So he was taken to an Israeli hospital – the HaEmek Medical Center. There Muhammed and his father were greeted in Arabic and rushed to the emergency room where the boy’s life was saved by a team of doctors including both Jews and Arabs. He was kept in intensive care for two days and then moved to continue his recuperation in another ward.

Established in 1924, HaEmek Medical Center is a community hospital serving a population of Jews and Arabs. With a mixed medical staff of Jews and Arabs, its guiding philosophy is ‘Coexistence Through Medicine’.

Ethnic cleansing? Way beyond apartheid?

Unite, you revolt me.

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.