Posts Tagged ‘Jews’

The Warren Cup, from the British Museum. Roman man anally penetrating a youth, possibly a slave. Circa 1st century AD.

Many ordinary Christians are deeply conflicted by their desire to embrace homosexual brethren in the fellowship of the church, when some of their leaders are telling them that these people are sinners.

Numbers of people feel very discomfited by the current debate.

So what is the “Biblical” teaching on gays?

Opponents of homosexuality almost always treat scripture as being “literally true” in a historical sense. Certainly, that is the case currently.

It follows, therefore, that any rebuttal of their claims should also adhere to this assumption, if it is to convince them that they are wrong.

I personally believe the early stories in the Bible are no more “literally” true than ancient Norse myths. But I am prepared to put that aside for one moment, and consider this issue under the rules that the “literalists” would apply, because many argue that the oft-trotted-out “Biblical” case against homosexuality simply doesn’t appear to “stack up”.

Genesis 19: 1-28

The ancient story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used throughout the centuries as a condemnation of homosexuality, to the point where anal sex is referred to as “Sodomy”.

And that’s the problem. It’s become a cliché. We assume it’s true, because it’s been around so long.

The verses in this story most commonly referred to as proof that the Sodomites were homosexual are verses 4 and 5: “Before they could lie down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house,from boy to old man, all the people in one mob. And they kept calling out to Lot and saying to him: ‘Where are the men who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have intercourse with them.”

Examining this scripture, the first thing we see is that all the people, in one mob, demanded that Lot bring out the visitors to them. If we are to believe that the account of Sodom & Gomorrah is a condemnation of homosexuality, then we must also accept the conclusion that the entire city consisted of homosexuals.

But if we look in the previous chapter, Genesis 18: 16-33, we see an account of Abraham negotiating with God to spare the people of Sodom, with the final outcome of God promising “I shall not bring it to ruin on account of the ten” (verse 33).

God promised Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if only ten “righteous men” could be found I the city.

If we are to accept the previous logic, this would mean that the “righteous men” referred to were, per se, heterosexuals.

Now it is a matter of Biblical “fact” that God (or rather, his angels) didn’t find anyone at all worth saving. But at this point, we then need to ask ourselves: what would be the odds of less than ten people in the entire region of Sodom & Gomorrah being heterosexual?

The obvious answer is “impossible”, of course.

If for no other reason than to ask, “where did all the population come from?” They were all gay immigrants, presumably, begat by parents left behind in other places that were heteroesexual? We think not.

So if homosexuality was not being referred to in this passage, then what was? Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, we find an interesting usage of a couple of different words.

When the mob cries out “Where are the men who came in to you tonight?”, the Hebrew word that is customarily translated men is actually ‘enowsh which, literally translated, means “mortal” or “human”.

This indicates that the mob knew that Lot had visitors, but were unsure of what sex they were.

We can divine this because the Hebrew word for “man” (utilized in this same passage in Genesis 19:8) is entirely different. And one really has to ask: why would homosexuals want to have sex with two strangers if they were unsure of what sex they were?

The passage translated as “Bring them out so that we may have intercourse with them” needs further examination as well.

Other Bible translations read “so that we may know them”. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “have intercourse”, or “know” is yada.

But this word, yada, appears in the Hebrew Scriptures a total of 943 times. And in all but ten of these usages, the word is used in the context of getting acquainted with someone.

Had the writer intended for his reading audience to believe that the mob wanted to have sexual intercourse with the strangers, he could simply have used the Hebrew word shakab, which vividly denotes sexual activity.

Many people argue, therefore, that the correct translation should be rendered something to the effect of: “Where are the people who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may get acquainted with them.”

So then, if the story of Sodom & Gomorrah was not a condemnation of homosexuality, what was it trying to convey?

Two verses in Exekiel sum up the story this way: “Look! This is what proved to be the error of Sodom your sister: Pride, sufficiency of bread and the carefreeness of keeping undisturbed were what happened to belong to her and her dependent towns, and the hand of the afflicted one and the poor one she did not strengthen. And they continued to be haughty and to carry on a detestable thing before me, and I finally removed them, just as I saw [fit]”. (Ezekiel 16: 49, 50.)

It is commonly assumed, because we’re referring to Sodom, that the “detestable thing” referred to in this passage is homosexuality.

But in fact, the Hebrew word utilized here is tow’ebah, which translated literally means “to commit idol worship”.

This can be seen in the original Genesis passage, chapter 19, verse 8: “Please, here I have two daughters who have never had intercourse with a man. Please let me bring them out to you. Then do to them as is good in your eyes.”

One has to ask: If Lot’s house was surrounded by homosexuals, which presumably he’d know as everyone in the entire region was gay apart from him and his family, why would he offer the mob women?

Note also that these women were virgins. And that the Sodomites were pagans.

Virgin sacrifices to idols were a common practice in this era. Therefore, it can easily be concluded that Lot was offering his daughters as a virgin sacrifice to appease the mob in an effort to protect the visitors.

In the Greek scriptures, the story of Sodom is summed up this way: “and by reducing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come”.

This corroborates Ezekiel’s summation, once again showing that these were “ungodly persons”; in other words, idolaters, they were not worshippers of the true God.

If we have difficulty with the logic of 100% of any population being gay, can we rather believe in 100% of a population being adherents of a particular pagan cult? Yes, we certainly can. If for no other reason that there was no tolerance of those who didn’t share pagan beliefs in many early societies. Not to agree was to invite exclusion or execution. You were in, or you were out. The Jews themselves exercise this attitude continually throughout the Old Testament.

So the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore, is almost certainly intended as a condemnation of idol worshippers, and of a greedy and inhospitable society that sought to treat visitors in a threatening manner – which was also a sin, to the early Jews, by the way.

Many people argue, therefore, that it is perfectly reasonable to propose that this key text on the judgement of this region had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality!

Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13

The message was clear to the ancient Israelites: semen was to be used for one purpose alone – procreation.

Wasted semen, whether by masturbation, anal penetration, or homosexuality, was not to be tolerated.

We have to place these edicts in some sort of historical context in order to understand them, if not to agree or disagree with them.

Life in those days was a “numbers game”. One of the Bible’s earliest edicts, a theme repeated through the Old Testament, was to “be fruitful and multiply”. If your tribe was numerically stronger than those around it, then good things would flow from that dominance.

(The same argument is currently used by the British National Party to argue for white Anglo-Saxon women having more children, but that’s another story.)

It’s an undeniable fact that many strict regulations were imposed on the ancient Israelites. The “chosen ones of God” understood each of these regulations to be equally important.

In the Greek scriptures, James points this fact out by stating: “For whoever observes all the law but makes a false step in one point, he has become an offender against them all.”

Fundamentalist Christians, however, selectively cite the two scriptures in Leviticus as a condemnation of homosexuality, overlooking James’ words which state, in essence, that if you’ve broken just one of the laws, you’ve broken them all.

So why do we focus so frequently on homosexuality?

Leviticus 19:27, for example, condemns haircuts and shaving. How many long-haired, bearded males attend your local Church? Or to put it another way, do we have agonised debates about Ministers who might have short hair?

Leviticus 19:19 also condemns wearing clothing made of more than one type of thread. Anybody reading this wear clothing made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester?

Taking the Bible literally, such individuals are equally guilty as homosexuals.

This leaves aside, of course, any concerns about whether or not it is still OK for us to grab our neighbours and use them as slaves, or to go around killing anyone who works on the Sabbath.

When questioned by the Pharisees regarding these ancient laws, Jesus’ reply was “I came, not to destroy, but to fulfil”. In other words, Christianity and love of God and fellow man was a replacement for the strict ancient codes, many of which were no longer practical or relevant.

But let us forget, for a moment, putting things in an historical context, or the fundamentalists will simply argue that we’re “messing with the truth”.

Let us look at the arguments of those who believe these two passages don’t really condemn homosexuality at all.

Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, one sees a different condemnation. Leviticus 20:13 states, in part, and was historically translated as, “When a man lies down with a male the same as one lies down with a woman”.

But had the writer intended to convey homosexuality being condemned here, he would surely have used the Hebrew word ‘iysh, which means “man”, or “male person”.

Instead, the author utilises a much more complicated Hebrew word, zakar, which literally translated means “A person worthy of recognition”.

Zakar was used to refer to high priests of the surrounding idolatrous religions.

In ancient societies, surrounding the early Jews, it was believed that by granting sexual favours to the high priest (a fertility rite), one would be guaranteed an abundance of children and crops.

Taking Leviticus 18: 22 into proper context, then, one should also look at the preceding verse 21: “And you must not allow the devoting of any of your offspring to Molech”.

So what we almost certainly see here are warnings to the Israelites not to engage in the fertility rituals of the worshippers of Molech, which often required the granting of sexual favours to the priest.

Many believe that if this been a mere condemnation of homosexuals, the writer would undoubtedly have used clearer or simpler language.

Romans 1: 26-27, 1 Cor. 6: 9-11, 1 Tim. 1: 9-11

Greek, like Hebrew, is a much more descriptive language than English. As an example, while we have the word “love”, Greek has agape, storge, philia, and eros – each describing a different form of love.

Further, just as with English, the meanings of words can change over generations.

Ironically, “gay” is a classic example.

Some say that it is easy to understand why words in ancient Greek could be misinterpreted, as are the terms “men who lie with men”, “abusers of mankind”, “homosexual”, and “pervert” in the above referenced scriptures.

The two words in Greek used in the above scriptures that are commonly mistranslated as such are arsenokoites and malakoi.

Bible scholars now believe arsenokoites to mean “male temple prostitute”, as mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures at Deut. 23: 17-18.

The actual meaning of this word, however, has been lost in history, as it was a slang term which, literally translated, means “lift bed”.

The Greek malakoi, literally translated, means “spineless” (some linguistics scholars translate it as “limp”, or “coward”).

What is important to note here is that both of these words are nouns. In ancient Greek, there is no known noun to define homosexuality. It was always expressed as a verb.

So just as in the Hebrew scriptures examined earlier, it appears that the Greek scriptures actually make reference to those who engaged in idolatrous practices, much of which, as we know, centred around sex in return for favours.

Neither the homosexual nor the direct idea of homosexuality appears anywhere in these passages. Had the writer intended to make a clear point about condemnation of gays, surely the Greek verb for homosexual behaviour would have been utilised rather than these nouns which are directly related to cowardice and idolatry?

But last – and by no means least – what about Paul’s apparently incontrovertible statement at Romans 1 where “females changed the natural use of themselves into one contrary to nature and likewise even the males left the natural use of the female and became violently inflamed in their lust towards one another”?

This would appear to be a simple, trenchant condemnation of homosexuality.

But perhaps, yet again. the truth is actually more subtle than that.

A clue lies in Paul’s words in the earlier verses 22 and 23: “Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed creatures and creeping things.”

So obviously, again, Paul’s reference here is to worshippers drawn into the ever-present danger of idolatry, one danger of which is unbridled sexual licentiousness of the kind that a conservative Jew like Paul would have found abhorrent. Especially when put in the context of his mission to the Roman Empire, with its endless parade of cults and religions, and very lax sexual behaviour generally.

As mentioned above in examining the Hebrew scriptures, many pagan idol-worshipping religions of Paul’s day also taught that by granting sexual favours to priests, the one giving the favour would be rewarded with fertility of crops and offspring.

Indeed, many such cults were, in reality, little more than brothels with quasi-religious overtones.

Unfortunately, of course, we have to read Paul’s words without the benefit of knowing all the background to his letters, but it certainly seems reasonable to suppose that his attack here is on a complex set of behaviours to do with people who reject the message of Christianity and continue to adhere to older religions.

It seems clear that Paul’s reference was not a dedicated attack on loving same-sex relationships, but his condemnation was focused instead on people who were normally heterosexuals who had been prevailed upon to rebel against their own sexual nature, in the granting of sexual favours to the leaders of pagan religions, in expectation of reward by the pagan gods.

So whilst his apparent rejection of homosexual behaviour seems unambiguous, the context of the comments is much more complex.

In conclusion, nowhere in the Bible, according to many Biblical scholars, is any unambiguously negative reference made to stable, loving same-sex relationships. And after all, it is now widely agreed that anything up to 5-10% of the population identify themselves as predominantly “gay” as regards their sexual preferences. So are 5-10% of those sections of the Bible discussing relationships dedicated to condemning their choice? Undoubtedly not. In all he is recorded as saying, does Christ ever address any remarks condemining homosexuality to one-in-20 of the population, or one-in-ten? No, not a word.

In fact, many gays argue that two positive references appear in the Hebrew scriptures of love between two people of the same sex:

2 Samuel 1:26 states: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant you were to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love from women.”

Ruth 1: 16, 17 states: “And Ruth proceeded to say: ‘Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go, and where you spend the night I shall spend the night. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I shall die, and there is where I shall be buried. May Jehovah do so to me and add to it if anything but death should make a separation between me and you’.”

And while it must immediately be conceded that no mention is made of actual sexual activity between these people, it must also be pointed out that these couples had therefore made covenants with each other. And to the ancient Israelites, a covenant was viewed as a holy bond; a powerful uniting of two people.

We all have to wrestle with the truth of this matter in our hearts. Personally, I find it much more helpful to see what the Bible is arguing for, rather than what it is arguing against. Those who are currently affected by some Christians’ negative stance towards gays and lesbians should perhaps also seek comfort in the much greater preponderance in the Bible of messages of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and understanding.

And the injunction, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Post Scriptum

A correspondent kindly reminded me of this hilarious spearing of the literal truth of the Old Testament, from 2002. The introductory quotation is from that era:

The power of logic and quiet humour – “Dr Laura’s” anti-gay viewpoints – for which she later apologised – sparked a worldwide internet phenomenon which did more to mock anti-gay beliefs based on the OT than anyone could have imagined.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show.

Recently, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.

The following is an open letter to Dr. Laura penned by a east coast resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.

When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,
Jim

Screen shot 2015-10-29 at 3.19.58 PM
An ongoing debate about laws to tackle “hate speech” is busily making headlines in the USA in particular, but is a hot topic elsewhere as well.
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We are firmly of the belief that free speech cannot be absolute, in any civilised society.
Defamation laws exist because they protect individuals from being lied about.
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“Jon So-and-So fiddles with kiddies” would, quite rightly, be considered illegal to say or print without proof, as it would damage Jon’s reputation, and possibly cause him to find his safety endangered, too.
 
“Gays fiddle with kiddies, they shouldn’t be teachers” is, however, acceptable. That’s legal to say in the USA and elsewhere, despite the fact that child abuse in the gay community is way below that in the heterosexual community.
Any gay person driven to suicide by this slur or others, (and sadly there are many of those, especially teenagers), or beaten up as they walk down the street, sacked from their job, or worse – murdered in a gay bashing incident, which happens with tragic regularity – well then, that’s OK, it’s free speech and if it stirs up that sort of reprehensible behaviour, well, you know, we’re sorry, but it’s free speech.
No. That’s too high a price to pay for some spurious “right” to spout bile and filth.
 
If you can’t see what a ludicrous, Kafkaesque double standard this knee-jerk defence of the right to say anything, anytime really is, then sadly we can help you no further.
Unknown, Dachau

Unknown, Dachau

In a week in which the leader of the Palestinians publicly acknowledged that the Holocaust was the worst crime in modern history, in a week that includes Holocaust Day, it is all too easy to forget that the Holocaust was not 6 million Jews, or 10 million people in total, or whatever figure we can urge historians to agree upon, or ten thousand camps, or forty thousand camps, or whatever the tally ends up being.

It was not, as it is so often reduced to, about the statistics.

It was the story of individuals, caught in the jaws of an unthinkable machine. Every single person of those millions who was imprisoned, tortured or killed lived their own life, felt their own fear, recoiled in their own horror, experienced the pain of separation from their loved ones, and faced their own, and their loved ones, extermination.

And despite the similarities, every single person endured a separate and unique experience.

Arthur Pais, Dachau

Arthur Pais, Dachau

Individual by individual they were lined up by trenches and shot in the back of the head.

Individual by individual, village by village, they were lined up against walls, sometimes clutching their families to them, shielding their children’s eyes from what was about to happen, and machine-gunned. In their millions, especially in Eastern Europe, but one by one, nevertheless.

Turn your eyes, if you can, to the camps. Witness, as a sentient, feeling, frozen-with-fear child is thrown alive into a furnace. Now see child after child. One after another. See another child scalded with boiling water, or acid, or hideously burned, or egregiously wounded, so that “doctors” could “scientifically” monitor their pain and death.

See a man, a woman, stood holding hands, someone else’s child clinging to their legs in terror, all naked, waiting for the gas to flood into the room, knowing what was coming because they had heard the screams of the men and women who went before them.

Real people, one by one by one, lay on rickety wooden bunks, wracked by dysentery, cholera, typhoid … knowing that if their plight was noticed during a roll call they would be immediately sent to the gas, the bullet, to be buried alive, to be hung, to be strangled, or just to be left outside to freeze to death.

They knew this every day.

Person by person.

Watch it, if you can.

Watch it, if you can.

Many years ago, I watched a movie called “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story”, for which Ben Kingsley was nominated for a Golden Globe and for which he won a “Golden Camera” for Best Actor in Germany. I recommend it.

Since I watched it, I have been unable to watch dramas or documentaries about the camps, not that I found it easy beforehand. I am not a moral or intellectual coward. I know what happened. I simply cannot bear to watch it over and over. It reduces me to abject misery. I sometimes wonder if past lives are real, and I was one of the victims. Or maybe I just have an enhanced capacity to imagine. I am a writer, after all.

From amongst many tragic scenarios, it included, in particular, one scene that seared itself into my memory. It especially distresses me, even to this day.

Wiesenthal had a friend who would always work without a coat, no matter how cold it was, smashing rocks feverishly, to show the Nazi guards how valuable he was, and thus avoid being selected for death.

One day, a guard idly calls the man to him, and orders him to stand back-to-back with another prisoner, binding the two of them together with wire.

He ignores the inmate’s protests as to his value, impatiently muttering, with no emotional recognition of the fact that in front of him stands two terrified human beings that he is about to kill, “Come on, come on. Hurry up.”, as he moves to put his gun into the prisoner’s mouth.

David Kalmanowsky

David Kalmanowsky

It is as if it is somehow affronting to him that a man under his control could desire to live, not die. The Jews had become so reduced in his eyes, so non-human, that such concerns were merely annoying.

He then shoots the two prisoners through the head, and turns to a fellow guard, triumphantly declaring he has found a way to save half the bullets they use.

The scene emphasises that there was no way to avoid one’s fate. One died, or one didn’t, by sheer chance, and each time and always a person, an individual, with their own hopes and fears and love and terror, was the victim.

Only when we individualise the statistics in our head do we start – falteringly, hesitantly – to grasp the real nightmare that was the Holocaust.

Only when we try, however impossibly, to put ourselves in the places of those who died – and those who lived – to try and emotionally experience what they went through – can we possibly comprehend the depth of depravity and evil to which the Nazis stooped.

Unknown

Unknown

Not to do so is to gradually allow the event – and all other such events before and since – to become mere statistics. The statistics, intended in their scale to shock us, ironically merely de-humanise the individuals concerned.

Which is why I recommend you read this article by Emily Hauser, a warm-hearted, intellectual, humane, feeling Jewish writer, on what Holocaust Day provokes in her.

Because we owe it to those who died to remember them, not as a mass, but one by one.

And we owe it, as well, to those who may yet die, in some future burst of human insanity. We owe it to current generations, and future ones, to never forget. To let our memories infuse our understanding and our decision-making today.

Please: click the link, and read. Even if it’s hard.

Holocaust Day, my children, & my mind’s eye.

"I just became the most controversial issue in twenty plus centuries of religion. Really, who knew?"

“I just became the most controversial issue in twenty plus centuries of religion. Really, who knew?”

In major news breaking now that will shake up both the Jewish and Christian religions – assuming their adherents are interested in facts rather than merely having a fundamentalist obsession with literal truth – evidence has emerged that the early chapters of the Old Testament were written long after they have sometimes been suggested to have been written. And they are historically inaccurate.

In short, the chapters were not eye-witness accounts, and even if they were brought down by oral tradition, they were later embellished by the actual writers, which contradicts long-held dogma that they were transmitted without a word being changed or added from the earliest story tellers.

Biblical scholars have long been aware many of the stories and accounts in the sacred book were not written by eyewitnesses, and according to new research, further evidence of that historical distance has appeared in the form of a hump-backed camel.

New research using radioactive-carbon dating techniques shows the animals weren’t domesticated until hundreds of years after the events documented in the Book of Genesis.

The research was published by Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University in Israel. They believe camels were not domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean until the 10th century B.C.

And yet, the hump-backed creatures are mentioned repeatedly alongside Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, indicating the Bible’s writers and editors were portraying what they saw in their present as how things looked in the past. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”

While there are conflicting theories about when the Bible was composed, the recent research suggests it was written much later than the events it describes. This supports earlier studies that have challenged the Bible’s veracity as a historic document, for example, by pointing out that the destruction and plundering of Jericho actually occurred some centuries distant from the life of the long-asserted Hebrew general and leader Joshua.

The new biblical questioning wasn’t the focus of the recent research, though, just an after-the-fact observation.

The question over “phantom camels” is not new one, according to TIME magazine. Biblical scholar William Foxwell Albright “argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism.”

In an opinion piece for CNN, Joel Baden writes that there was no deliberate deception intended on the part of the Bible’s authors.

“Biblical authors,” Baden writes, “simply transplanted the nomadic standards of their time into the distant past. There is nothing deceptive about this. They weren’t trying to trick anyone. They imagined, quite reasonably, that the past was, fundamentally, like their present.”

A similar conclusion was reached by Smithsonian.com author Colin Schultz, who wrote, “these findings don’t necessarily disprove all the stories of the Bible. Rather, knowing that there are camels where there definitely shouldn’t be shows that the Bible’s authors, working thousands of years after the events they were describing were supposed to take place, took a modern lens to these ancient tales.”

At long last, can we focus on the eternal truths in the book that affect how we treat our fellow humans, rather than worrying about every dotted 'i' and crossed 't'?

At long last, can we focus on the eternal truths in the book that affect how we treat our fellow humans, rather than worrying about every dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’?

Nevertheless, the findings confirm again that the Bible is not LITERALLY true.

This should not really come as a surprise to Jews and Christians. Authoritative figures in the Roman Catholic Church have already said it, in plain language. Like their acknowledgement that Adam and Eve never existed.

With this latest finding, it is simply scientifically impossible for us to see the Old Testament as entirely, immovably factual.

And we now also have categorical evidence that the Old Testament authors were operating based on their current world view, which would undoubtedly reflect predominant cultural mores, too.

Here’s the key point: if we can unarguably subtract one fact from the Bible, then it is logically consistent that we can subtract others, too.

For example: the few lines that are (incorrectly in my opinion) supposed to be about homosexuality, which have caused misery, persecution and death for millions of good people down through the centuries.

Or, most dramatically: creationism. Specifically “young Earth” creationism.

Today is a day for celebration. The moment we acknowledge that the Bible need not be literally true to be true, we free humankind from mindless, meaningless intellectual navel gazing, and set free our own critical faculties, to lead us closer to the Divine.

Now, to coin a phrase, that’s Good News for Modern Man.

moon-pond-ripples

Stephen Yolland writes:

I am often asked – surprisingly insistently, by some people, actually – why I keep on rabbiting on.

Why don’t I just bugger off and make more money, or watch some more football, or make love to my wife or just sit and bliss out. (All attractive options, I must say.) Why must I choose to have an opinion on this and that, and with such ferocious passion, sometimes, and why on earth anyone would care, anyway, what I think?

Why do I feel I have the right to pontificate freely on topics of great diversity, and sometimes topics with which I am not, apparently, personally involved?

The answer is quite simple, and it is threefold.

Firstly, I believe we are all born with innate gifts.

Whether these are devolved to us in some spiritual way or merely the result of genetics, accidental wiring and our birth environment I have no idea. I have a suspicion, but I cannot be emphatic. I believe, nevertheless that it is true. It is why some people grow up to be fine artists, administrators, musicians, farmers, pilots, poets and so on. They have a natural aptitude which gets developed.

I believe passionately that the world requires us to build on our aptitudes: to contribute as much as we can with what we’ve got. That’s how the world keeps turning.

I can write. I have a good ear for tone, for a smart turn of phrase, and even though my memory is not what it was (helas!) I have a reasonably good vocabulary.

I cannot walk through this life alone.

I am interested in other people. I am connected. Whether those people are in Russia, America, Thailand, China, Britain, or my own country. I am interested in what makes them tick, why they think as they do, and what the results of their thinking are. “No man is an island”, and I am not. To be interested in other people, and to care about what happens to them, is in my DNA. It’s partly a spiritual commitment, and partly an observation that this is simply how I wish to be. It is an innate part of my humanity to be interested in others.

I know what I think. Well, I think I do.

Last but not least, I am opinionated. I have that type of mind that cannot look at a situation, or a problem, or an opportunity, and not create an opinion. It’s partly because, as a business consultant, it is my training. It is also because I have, for a “creative” person, a very logical and analytical frame of mind. I simply enjoy examining things from all directions, listening to all points of view, and then forming an opinion.

Once having formed an opinion, I then feel obliged to share it. Otherwise why bother holding it?

Are my opinions always right? No. Do I change them? Yes. Do I change them very often? Possibly not. My mother once said to me “If an opinion is worth holding, it’s worth fighting for”. I never forgot that.

What provoked this introspection, Dear Reader?

Howard Goldenberg

Howard Goldenberg

Well, I was privileged today to take a phone call from my friend and business colleague, Gideon Kline. Last evening, he was pleased to have been in the audience for some humanitarian awards the Jewish Aid community were handing out, and especially to have heard an inspirational speech from doctor, runner, activist, charity fundraiser and author Howard Goldenberg.

Goldenberg was speaking about the need for generosity of spirit, especially as regards our relationships with Australia’s first peoples and with the refugees who wish to live here. And his speech was, indeed, inspirational. Witty, apposite, empathetic, warm-hearted, and meaningful. You can read it here.

The speech is wholly wonderful: but what really hit home was his very Jewish insistence on how we are all beholden to continue to fight for a better world. A world in which the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you wish they would do unto you” is the one that holds sway. (The famous rule appears in all the Middle Eastern monotheistic religions in some form, of course.)

I reflected that it is so easy to become discouraged by the intractability of the problems our world faces. And as I reflected, this comment from Goldenberg really caught my eye, and sent me off to Wikipedia to lean more about the Pirke Avoth.

“Our sages taught, in Pirke Avoth – “The day is short, the work is great…

Lo aleicha ham’lacha ligmor, ve’lo atta ben-horin le’hibatel
mimenna …

It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it …”

Along with others that were listed, I found this phrase extremely moving. And I realised it ultimately describes why I, and so many others, (many much more effectively than me), “keep on keeping on”.

I have also heard the exhortion described in a more contemporary way as “Be sure to be a planter of oak trees”. One never sees the fully grown tree oneself, because one simply cannot live that long, but one day someone will, and marvel at its beauty, and rest under it’s shade, and be glad of it.

“It is not for me to complete the work. but neither am I free to desist from it.”

That’s why.

That, and as many have said “When you cast a pebble into a pond, you never know where the ripples end.”

I have no idea whether my words ever change lives.

I know it would change mine if they were silent.

And yes: having grown one in my own back yard, which every autumn gives me a good crop of acorns, I also plant oak trees, occasionally, surreptitiously, around the immaculately native-strewn and over-politically-correct parks of Melbourne, too. In fifty years, they will be the wonder of all who survey them. As famous, one day, as the elms, alders and other wonderful Victorian imports that still lend such a gracious air to our City today.

So sue me, already.

When political correctness interrupts good education it is even more stupid and wrong than usual. Have a read of this story and then I’ll tell you why I think – and this might surprise, perhaps, some of Wellthisiswhatithink’s regular readers – I consider this an extremely foolish moment for the local school authorities.

An SS officer speaks to a Jew in the Lodz Ghetto. Before the Nazis takeover, they might well have been friendly neighbours. What happened? And most importantly, how do we stop it happening again?

From AP:

ALBANY, N.Y. – A high school English teacher who had students pretend to be Jew-hating Nazis in a writing assignment has been placed on leave.

The teacher at Albany High School caused a storm of criticism after having students practice the art of persuasive writing by penning a letter to a fictitious Nazi government official arguing that “Jews are evil.”

District Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard held a news conference Friday to apologize for the assignment.

The Times Union newspaper reported on Saturday that the teacher was not in class on Friday and had been placed on leave by the school district.

The district has not named the teacher, who was described as a veteran.

The writing assignment was done before a planned class reading of the memoir “Night,” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

For the assignment, the teacher asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then write a letter trying to convince an official of the Third Reich “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.”

“Review in your notebooks the definitions for logos, ethos, and pathos,” the teacher’s assignment said. “Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember, your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30s) may depend on it!”

Wyngaard said she didn’t think the assignment was malicious but “it displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate.”

Many of the students were dismayed by the assignment. Some refused to write the essay.

Encouraging students to think like Nazis? Disgraceful, right?

Not at all.

We spend much of our educative process with our kids encouraging them to empathise with people in situations much different to their own. In Australia for example, most obviously, we encourage them to imagine their life as an arriving refugee, for example from Afghanistan, or as an indigenous child. (Both “hot” political topics.)

Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht – the day when Nazis burned and looted Jewish premises and imprisoned or killed Jews throughout Germany. Still the population – and the world – was silent.

If we want to use our creative writing, philosophy, theology or sociology classes to encourage them to evaluate the world critically, why would we only ask them to put themselves in the minds of the weak, the downtrodden, or the dis-advantaged?

To be sure, such an exercise is worthy and valuable on many levels.

But what better lesson could we teach them but to understand the madness – the collective, breathtaking, murderous insanity – of the rise of fascism and racism represented so awfully and perfectly by the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany?

And, as here, to try to understand how ordinary people became swept up in it, abandoning their principles, their innate goodness, their better selves, through fear, intimidation, and has been demonstrated by many psychological experiments, a desire, above all, to conform to authority.

Without the passive and sometimes active support of the citizenry, a fascist regime cannot arise. It’s as simple as that. Whether that citizenry is enthusiastic or cowed, the regime cannot exist in a vacuum.

The mob is a dangerous thing, and a mob turned against an ethnic group desperately so. And every mob is made up of individuals, suspending their individual ethical framework. It’s not a problem that got locked away and dealt with in the 1930s and 40s. We have seen it occur many times since. Rwanda, anyone?

How can we possibly rid humanity of this sort of mass psychosis unless we can teach our children to try to understand how a combination of pressures can make otherwise sane people do terrible things – like write a letter to an official to convince him or her “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.” Especially when a short trip to the concentration camp or the guillotine would be your likely outcome if that letter did not sound convincing. (See below.)

Millions of “ordinary” Germans made these moral compromises in this period.

As many have admitted, they had a reasonable idea – if not the whole picture – as to what was happening to the Jews.

After all, there were cases of neighbours helping Nazi thugs to evict Jews, bundle them into trucks, take their furniture, and sometimes there was explicit violence, sometimes fatal, on the streets.

Within recent memory we have seen exactly the same sort of compromise with morality played out with dreadful consequences in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia …

Let us read the AP report carefully. The children in this man’s class were being prepared to encounter Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece “Night”. A Holocaust memoir so excoriating, so terrible, so shocking in its description of how the wholesale slaughter of the Jews was not protested and allowed to continue, as to be almost unreadable.

There is a danger that in today’s world, growing up in a relatively safe modern environment, distanced from these seminal events by time (it is coming up to 70 years from the end of WWII), the children of today will simply not be able to grasp or genuinely take on the horrors of that era – what man is capable of doing to his fellow man.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. Not malicious? This teacher’s actions were far-sighted and innovative. The teacher should be reinstated immediately. It’s the school supervisor who needs to be sent on leave. Perhaps to tour Auschwitz, with enough time to think a little more deeply about their role than merely pacifying knee-jerk public opinion.

One of the key themes in Wiesel’s work is the “Unheeded Witnesses” – people who tried to warn of the extremity of the Final Solution but who could not convince those around them. And of those who stand by while terrible events are allowed to unfold, uninterrupted.

In the end, even Wiesel himself finds himself in this role, too terrified of dying himself to intervene in the beating to death of his own father in the bunk under his.

Understanding how such events can occur requires, first, an understanding of how millions of apparently sane and compassionate people can connive in their perpetration. One can hear the students now, saying to each other, “We would never behave like that!” Yet people do. All the time.

Understanding why is the key to changing our world.

This teacher is not an insensitive bumbler, he is a hero.

Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl: Born 9 May 1921, died 22 February 1943, aged 21

To understand what happened to those few incredibly courageous Germans who stood up against the Nazis, I warmly commend you to watch Sophie Scholl, The Final Days.

It tells the almost unwatchable, unutterably horrible and yet inspiring story of a group of five young people who defied the Nazis and published anti-war literature.

Their story is told here.

Read it, if you can. Watch it, if you can.

Read Wiesel’s book, if you can.

It is often said that we owe it to the dead never to forget.

Well, we owe it to the living to understand, too.

Extract from Wikipedia:

Read it, if you can bring yourself to do so.

Read it, if you can bring yourself to do so.

Night is a work by Elie Wiesel about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War. In just over 100 pages of sparse and fragmented narrative, Wiesel writes about the death of God and his own increasing disgust with humanity, reflected in the inversion of the father-child relationship as his father declines to a helpless state and Wiesel becomes his resentful teenage caregiver. “If only I could get rid of this dead weight … Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.” In Night, everything is inverted, every value destroyed. “Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” a Kapo tells him. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”[1]

Wiesel was 16 years old when Buchenwald was liberated by the United States Army in April 1945, too late for his father, who died after a beating while Wiesel lay silently on the bunk above for fear of being beaten too. Having lost his faith in God and mankind, he vowed not to speak of his experience for ten years. In 1954 he wrote an 865-page manuscript in Yiddish, published as the 245-page Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (“And the World Remained Silent”) in Buenos Aires, after which the French novelist François Mauriac persuaded him to write it for a wider audience.[2]

Even with Mauriac’s help, finding a publisher was not easy – they said the book was too morbid – but 178 pages appeared in 1958 in France as La Nuit, and in 1960 a 116-page version was published in the United States as Night. Fifty years later it had been translated into 30 languages, and ranked alongside Primo Levi‘s If This Is a Man and Anne Frank‘s The Diary of a Young Girl as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature. Unlike Levi’s and Frank’s work, it remains unclear how much of Wiesel’s story is memoir. He has reacted angrily to the idea that any of it is fiction, calling it his deposition, but scholars have nevertheless had difficulty approaching it as an unvarnished account. The American literary critic Ruth Franklin writes that the ruthless pruning of the text from Yiddish to French transformed an angry historical account into a work of art.[3]

Night is the first book in a trilogy – Night, Dawn and Day – reflecting Wiesel’s state of mind during and after the Holocaust. The titles mark his transition from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. “In Night,” he said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.”[4]

Wiesel was born on 30 September 1928 in Sighet, a town in the Carpathian mountains of northern Transylvania, into a close-knit community of 10,000–20,000 mostly Orthodox Jews. The area was annexed by Hungary in 1940. Ellen Fine writes that anti-Jewish legislation was enacted between 1938 and 1944, but the period Wiesel discusses at the beginning of the book, 1942 and 1943, was nevertheless a relatively calm one for the Jewish population.[5]

That changed at midnight on 18 March 1944 with the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany and the installation of Döme Sztójay‘s puppet government. Adolf Eichmann, commander of the Nazi’s Sondereinsatzkommando (Special Action Unit), arrived in Hungary to oversee the deportation of its Jews to Auschwitz. Between 15 May and 7 July 1944, 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, around 12,000 every day, most of them gassed.[5]

As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe in May and June that year, Wiesel and his family – his father Chlomo (also written Shlomo), his mother Sarah, and his sisters Hilda, Beatrice, and seven-year-old Tzipora – were being deported to Auschwitz, along with 15,000 Jews from Sighet and 18,000 from neighboring villages.

Wiesel’s mother and Tzipora were immediately sent to the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice survived, separated from the rest of the family. Wiesel and his father managed to stay together, surviving hard labor and a death march to another concentration camp, Buchenwald, where Wiesel watched his father die just weeks before the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army arrived to liberate the camp.[6]

Night opens in Sighet in 1941. The book’s narrator is Eliezer, a pious Orthodox Jewish teenager, who studies the Talmud by day and at night runs to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple, a prediction, writes Fine, of the shadow about to be cast over Europe’s Jews.[7]

To the disapproval of his father, Eliezer spends his time discussing the Kabbalah and the mysteries of the universe with Moshe the Beadle, the synagogue’s caretaker and the town’s humblest resident, “awkward as a clown” but much loved. Moshe tells him that “man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him,”[8] a theme to which Night repeatedly turns.

Toward the end of 1942, the Hungarian government rules that Jews unable to prove their citizenship will be expelled, and Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken to Poland. Somehow he manages to escape, miraculously saved by God, he believes, so that he might save the Jews of Sighet. He hurries back to the village to tell what he calls the story of his own death, running from one household to the next: “Jews, listen to me! It’s all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me![9]

He tells them that when the cattle train crossed the border into Poland it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were transferred to trucks and driven to a forest in Galicia, near Kolomaye, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished, each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. He tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet would not listen, making Moshe Night’s first unheeded witness.[10]

gettoThe Sighet ghettos

Over the next 18 months restrictions on Jews increase.

No valuables are to be kept in Jewish homes.

Jews are not allowed to visit restaurants, attend the synagogue, or leave home after six in the evening, and they must wear the yellow star at all times. Eliezer’s father makes light of it:

The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it …

(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)[12]

The SS transfer the Jews to one of two ghettos, jointly run like a small town, each with its own council or Judenrat.

The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic … We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery. Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers …

It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion.[12]

In May 1944 the Judenrat is told the ghettos will be closed with immediate effect and the residents deported.

They are not told their destination, only that they may each take a few personal belongings.[13] The next day, Eliezer watches as the Hungarian police, wielding truncheons and rifle butts, round up his friends and neighbors, then march them through the streets.

“It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today.”[9]

And there was I, on the pavement, unable to make a move. Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved … His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book …

One by one they passed in front of me, teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I once could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs.[14]

Auschwitz

photograph

Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp within the Auschwitz complex of concentration camps.

Eliezer and his family are crammed into a closed cattle wagon with 80 others, with no light, little to eat or drink, barely able to breathe.

On their third night in the wagon, one woman, Madame Schächter, repeatedly becomes hysterical, screaming that she can see flames, until she is beaten into silence by the others.

She is Night’s second unheeded witness, believed only as the train reaches Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the others see the chimneys for themselves.[15]

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd on what seems to be a station platform. In the background, a tall building with what looks like a watch tower.

Selektion” of Jews from Hungary at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May/June 1944. To be sent to the left meant slave labor; to the right, the gas chamber.[16]

Men and women are separated on arrival.

Eliezer and his father are sent to the left; his mother, Hilda, Beatrice, and Tzipora to the right.

He learned years later that his mother and Tzipora were taken straight to the gas chamber.

For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair … and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.[17]

The remainder of Night describes Eliezer’s desperate efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father’s decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man’s caregiver, his resentment and guilt, because his father’s existence threatens his own.

The stronger Eliezer’s need to survive, the weaker the bonds that tie him to other people.

His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God.[18]

During the first night, as he and his father wait in line to be thrown into a firepit, he watches a lorry draw up and deliver its load of children into the fire.

While his father recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead – Wiesel writes that in the long history of the Jews, he does not know whether people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves – Eliezer considers throwing himself against the electric fence.

At that moment he and his father are ordered to go to their barracks. But Eliezer is already destroyed. “[T]he student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me.”[18]

There follows a passage that Ellen Fine writes contains the main themes of Night.

The death of God, children, innocence, and the défaite du moi, or dissolution of the self, a recurring theme in Holocaust literature:[19]

sonderHere we can see members of the Sonderkommando working in the camp at Auschwitz in 1944, disposing of a corpse. Photographs of their work was smuggled out of the camp by the Polish resistance.
Jewish inmates and Russian prisoners-of-war were forced to work in and around the gas chambers.
Their work was primarily to empty the chambers of dead bodies and to burn the mounds of corpses.
When they became too emaciated to work efficiently, or too depressed by their task, they simply joined the other prisoners in the queue for execution.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.[20]

With the loss of self goes Eliezer’s sense of time: “I glanced at my father. How he had changed! … So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night – one single night?”[21]

God is not lost to Eliezer entirely. During the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly and in agony. Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes clear, and weeps.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?

And I heard a voice within me answer him: … Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.[22]

Fine writes that this is the central event in Night, the religious sacrifice, Isaac bound to the altar, Jesus nailed to the cross, described by Alfred Kazin as the literal death of God. Afterwards the inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but Eliezer cannot take part.

Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him?

Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?

How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces?

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused.[24]

Death march

In or around August 1944, Eliezer and his father (seen left) are transferred from Birkenau to Auschwitz III, a work camp, their lives reduced to the avoidance of violence and the constant search for food.

“Bread, soup – these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach.”[25]

Their only joy is when the Americans bomb the camp.

In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee, taking 60,000 inmates on a death march to concentration camps in Germany. Eliezer and his father are marched to Gleiwitz to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, a camp near Weimar, 350 miles (563 km) from Auschwitz.

Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots.[26]

Resting in a shed after marching 50 miles (80 km), Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, “always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer,” but the rabbi had lost sight of him in the crowd and is now scratching through the snow looking for his son’s corpse. “I hadn’t any strength left for running. And my son didn’t notice. That’s all I know.”[27]

Wiesel doesn’t tell the man that his son had indeed noticed his father limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow.

And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.[28]

The inmates spend two days and nights in Gleiwitz locked inside cramped barracks without food, water, or heat, literally sleeping on top of one another, so that each morning the living wake with the dead underneath them. There is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof, and no room to sit down until other inmates make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks. They travel for ten days and nights, with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 Jews in Wiesel’s wagon, 12 survive the journey.

I woke from my apathy just at the moment when two men came up to my father. I threw myself on top of his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hand, crying:Father! Father! Wake up. They’re trying to throw you out of the carriage …His body remained inert …I set to work to slap him as hard as I could. After a moment, my father’s eyelids moved slightly over his glazed eyes. He was breathing weakly.You see, I cried.The two men moved away.[29]

Buchenwald and liberation

photograph

In Buchenwald concentration camp, seen left, the Nazis are waiting with loudhailers and orders to head for a hot bath. Wiesel is desperate for the heat of the water, but his father sinks into the snow. “I could have wept with rage … I showed him the corpses all around him; they too had wanted to rest here … I yelled against the wind … I felt I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death he had already chosen.[30]

An alert sounds, the camp lights go out, and Eliezer, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind.

He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him. “But at that same moment this thought came into my mind. Don’t let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.”[31]

His father is in another block, sick with dysentery.

The other men in his bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack him because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself.

Eliezer is unable to protect him. “Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost.”

Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, Chlomo is beaten on the head with a truncheon by an SS officer for making too much noise. Eliezer lies in the bunk above and does nothing for fear of being beaten too. He hears his father make a rattling noise, “Eliezer”. In the morning, 29 January 1945, he finds another man in his father’s place. The Kapos had come before dawn and taken Chlomo to the crematorium.[31]

His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like – free at last![31]

Chlomo missed his freedom by just a few weeks. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. Eliezer is transferred to the children’s block where he stays with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On 5 April 1945 the inmates are told the camp is to be liquidated and they are to be moved – another death march. On 11 April, with 20,000 inmates still inside, a Jewish resistance movement attacks the remaining SS officers and takes control. At six o’clock that evening, an American tank arrives at the gates, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army.

Eliezer is free.[32]

Frightening, isn't she?

Regular readers will know I am pretty much against generalisations – “all generalisations are false” being one of my favourite aphorisms –  other than those that are supportable by the obvious empirical evidence, such as “The Republican Party have selected a bunch of vicious right wingers and idiots for people to choose from in 2012 and do not stand a snowball in hell’s chance of winning against Obama in November”.

One of the generalisations that worries me sick is the creeping fear of Muslims that plagues daily life in the West. Our leaders (whether in a political sense, or opinion formers) regularly use coded language – or not so coded – to keep us constantly on edge about the likelihood of a home-grown Muslim – whether we’re in America, Europe, or Australia – launching a terrorist attack in our backyard. It simultaneously plays to our best side – instinctive defence of family, stability, our community – and to our worst – fear of the unknown (or little known), fear of “other”, fear of those not like us.

There is no doubt that the world is in thrall to terrorism. But the numbers of cases of “home-grown” Muslims actually engaging in violence against the countries they now call home have been remarkably few, given the millions of people living next door to us who have contacts or family in the Middle East and Asian sub-continent, and who might well have reason to be aggrieved at some (not all) of our involvement in those regions.

Well now Professor Charles Kurzman, of the  Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at the University of North Carolina, has released a report that found that radicalization among Muslim-Americans is “relatively low,” and has actually been on the decrease since 9/11.

Kurzman also points out that many of the suspects in 2011 “appeared to have been limited in competence.” In one arrest of a Muslim-American for terrorism-related charges, for example, Emerson Begolly, “a 21-year-old former white supremacist who converted to Islam and posted violent-sounding material on the Internet” was tricked by his mother into meeting with FBI agents outside of a restaurant. He then tried fight them off by biting them. In another case, on his way to attack a local Shia mosque, Roger Stockham bragged about the his plan to a bartender when he stopped in to a bar for a drink.

Kurzman notes that “The limited scale of Muslim-American terrorism in 2011 runs counter to the fears that many Americans shared in the days and months after 9/11, that domestic Muslim- American terrorism would escalate,” the report concludes. “The spike in terrorism cases in 2009 renewed these concerns, as have repeated warnings from U.S. government officials about a possible surge in homegrown Islamic terrorism. The predicted surge has not materialized.”

Blogger Emily Hauser notes that she wishes she “had a job that would justify me doing a comparative study of all the kinds of extremist violence perpetrated in this country on an annual basis. I’d like to see how, for instance, the 1 ,002 hate groups tracked by the Southern Law Poverty Center compare to extremist American Muslims (individuals or organizations).

If you’d like to know what most Muslims (American and non-) think about such extremism, I gathered some statistics and statements here (spoiler alert! They’re pretty solidly against it).

Well done again, Emily.

Judging the Ainger awards, and what it’s got to do with this story

This year I was a judge at The Ainger public speaking competition in Melbourne for teenagers. It was not a debating competition, in that the speakers had to persuade us of their point of view – rather it was designed to see who could present their case lucidly, compellingly, and convincingly, whether or not we were convinced of the merits of their argument.

The notes for contestants were very specific. Rule one read:

“Speakers must choose their own topic which should be based on fact. It should be
presented in a manner that will cause an audience to take a greater interest in a topic which
may not appeal to them. In addition to the content, the speaker should use analogies,
anecdotes and the music of the language to illustrate and enhance the delivery. The
presentation should inform, interest and entertain. Take heed of Cicero’s advice: “Oft an
argument of greater merit will be defeated by an argument of lesser merit, which is better
presented.”

It is worth noting, I think, that the winning speech (and including the heats, there were dozens of speeches on a huge variety of topics) came from a young Australian Muslim teenage girl in “Western” clothing and sans hijab who asked the audience  – who were mainly white, Anglo, middle-aged, and slightly more men than women – in a voice that was carefully modulated and barely rising above a quiet and calming tone for her entire speech, to simply look with her at some of the facts surrounding Muslims in our society.

In particular, in the four minutes alloted to her, she asked us why we were so obsessed with the issue of the burka, when less than 2% of Muslim females wordwide wear it, when it is a cultural item not a religious one, and when the figure in Western countries was way lower than that anyway.

Why, she was asking, with incredible self-control, subtlety and courtesy, did we, as democratic-minded people in free societies with great traditions of tolerance, allow ourselves to be distracted, overwhelmed or misled by caricatures and bias against her, her family, and her co-religionists. Why are we so easily led astray by the shock jocks, and those who seek to divide us, not unite us? By those who prefer simplistic sloganeering to facts. She didn’t even ask us to change our minds, just to hear her out, and pause for a moment, and think.

As we listened to her questions – so gently presented, and yet with such urgent import – I looked around the audience, and I fell to thinking about how our societies had absorbed and benefitted from the flow of immigration from so many areas over the centuries.

I grew up in Britain – a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, starting with the Romans, the Saxons and Vikings, through the Normans and hundreds of other groups and cultures, up to the West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis of the 60s and 70s, and the Eastern Europeans and Africans of today.

America wouldn’t even exist as a nation state were it not for the exhortation “Send me your poor and huddled masses”, and, indeed, because of the vast influx of Africans brought across the Atlantic by the slave trade, and Hispanic migrants from the south.

Australia is the most racially mixed country on the planet – with the possible exception of Israel, but as that is also virtually a uni-religionist state it could be considered in a different category – and also one of the safest and most peaceful, and similarly would not exist in its current form were it not for a proud tradition of accepting and integrating immigrants from all over the world, and from widely varying cultural backgrounds.

As I listened, I pondered how those previous flows of immigration had been received by the host nations. And it struck me that they had often caused a degree of tension – the clashes between the Irish and Italians in New York, the anxieties over immigration in the UK when Enoch Powell predicted “rivers of blood” flowing down the streets, the dismissive attitudes of the mainly British and Irish local stock in Australia when they were confronted by a vast influx of southern Europeans in the 50s and 60s – those “wogs” who “smelled funny” and talked incomprehensibly – or again in the 80s and 90s with concerns over the Asian-isation of this wide brown land. And how those tensions always existed, and exist, and probably always will, but how over time they always invariably seem to disappear, as we learn about the incoming culture, and come to value its distinctive contribution to our suburbs and our streets.

The wandering jew

When the Nazis began to wage war against the Jews, they used rhetoric and propaganda at first, then followed by action. On November 8, 1937 a propaganda exhibit entitled Der Ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew) opened which portrayed Jews as communists, swindlers and sex-fiends. Over 150,000 people attended the exhibit in just 3 days. Jews were frequently associated with communists and thieves. The Wandering Jew later became a notorious hate film, and associated the Jews with rats and other vermin.

And then I mused, at some length, about the Jews, and how they had been repeatedly marginalised and persecuted, and alternately embraced and celebrated, and then persecuted again, over hundreds of years. And how one of the major differences between the Jews and other immigrants was that they didn’t just believe different things, they often looked different, too, with their  yarmulkes or kippas, and some of them with funny haircuts and weird black 19th century clothes, too. And how in Europe and Russia that meant they became such an easy target for us to foist our fears on – see any propaganda materials of the time to understand how difference in appearance played a major role in whipping up fear – so that we slaughtered tens of millions of utterly innocent men, women, and children, giving away our own humanity in the process. And I say “We” deliberately, because although it was the Tsarist Cossacks and then the Stalinists and then the Nazis who actually did the deed, it was the rest of Western society – including great chunks of the political establishment, the cultural leadership, and the opinion formers – who stood by and let them do it when a timely intervention could have stopped the madness before it ran entirely out of control.

And two things occurred to me.

No, I still don’t think women should wear the burka, because I remain to be convinced that anyone truly wears it out of choice but rather through fear and cultural imposition, and I think it is demeaning to their personal freedom not to be able to wear whatever they damn well please*, and it is representative of an antiquated and patriarchal view of the family and the world that I simply do not agree with. And I also believe it is active cruelty to expect an Afghan woman to walk along the streets of Melbourne on a thirty eight degree day swathed in black heat-absorbing cloth while her husband wanders along beside her in white shorts and a t-shirt.

And also that the matter has nothing to do with Muslims in general, who in the main are far more like me than they are unlike me, who love their children, and worry about their jobs, and want to live in a decent house, and go to the footy, and contemplate art, and most of all just want to be left alone to get on as best they can, and make a contribution to the country they now live in. And that every time I forget that, I am zipping my mouth shut in a manner that could one day lead to marginalisation, or pogroms, or worse – and will certainly not lead to a rapprochement between my country and the countries Muslim migrants have come from any time soon. And that if there is not a rapprochement, that the tiny number of terrorists who make our life a misery under the cloak of radical Islam will continue to kill themselves and others, as sure as night follows day.

David Kossoff

David Kossoff

Driving home that evening, I remembered a short story told by David Kossoff, who was a popular actor and writer-philosopher when I was just a boy, and a Jew who wrote movingly for Christian audiences in his best-seller “The Book of Witnesses”, (first published 1971 and still available, and a heart-warming read for followers of both cultures), who talked on radio one day about the foolishness of one side of society instinctively mistrusting another.

As a child of Russian-Jewish emigrés to London himself, he told with gentle charm the story of a young man who was walking home one night to his hut near the Jewish outskirts of a Russian town, pushing his bicycle, when a mounted sabre-wielding Cossack thundered around the corner of the street with clearly murderous intent, and bore down on a small group of Jews huddled in fear against the wall of a nearby building.

As the Cossack raised his sabre to strike, the young man interposed himself between him and the Jews and called out “What on earth do you think you are you doing?”

Momentarily nonplussed, the Cossack looked down, and cried out “It’s all the fault of the Jews!”

The young man shook his head, and spoke quietly. “No, my friend,” he said, “It is all the fault of the bicycle riders. It is me you should kill if you are angry.”

The Cossack peered at him in confusion, and asked “Why the bicycle riders?”

The young man shyly looked up at him and smiled gently, and murmured “Why the Jews?”

Kossoff doesn’t say if the young man was Jew or Gentile, and I like to think that omission was deliberate. And as I thought back to the faces of those in the audience listening to the quiet urging of a young girl who could not understand why we didn’t trust her and her family, I realised that one thing was stamped on the face of the listeners, almost universally.

It was shame.

And as I pulled into the driveway of my very ordinary suburban house, which just happens, by sheer coincidence, to be right next door to the home of a family of Muslims of Lebanese extraction – who seem just like my family except they drink tea when we would drink wine, and look healthier for it, too –  I gave thanks to God, as I often do, for the innocent, naive honesty and passion of the young, and I made a mental promise to listen to them more intently and more respectfully, as I watch myself slide slowly but inexorably into ossified middle age, and beyond.

*This also means I accept their right to wear it, of course, if it is genuinely their choice and preference.