Disobedience: A Movie Review

We saw the film Saturday evening. I wrote this review Sunday. I am only sending it out this morning because I had to finish off the latter half of my Friday Torah commentary that was too long. By sheer chance, there is a tenuous link between the film and the commentary. Normally I write reviews because I love a film or because, contrary to popular critical opinion, I dislike it. That means that the vast majority of films I watch are not reviewed by me. This movie review falls in neither of my major two categories.

Disobedience is a 2018 film starring Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti) and Alessandro Nivola (Dovid) directed by Sebastiăn Lelio, the Chilean director of the Academy Award-winning Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman. On “Rotten Tomatoes,” the film received a tomatometer median rating of 84% indicating the percentage of positive professional critic reviews, with an average of 72%, indicating that critics who did not like the movie really disliked it. The audience score was 77% with a much closer average rating. Supposedly not a great movie but an OK one.

The film is based on Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name that won the Orange Prize for Fiction when it was published. It was adapted for the screen by the director and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the playwright and author of Her Naked Skin (2008), a play about two rebellious suffragettes in pre-WWI Britain. Given these elements, one would expect the film to be at least decent and watchable, especially since Alderman came from the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in the northwest suburb of London.

Unfortunately, though watchable, ponderously so, the movie was not decent, not in the sense that it was about non-conformity to propriety and respectability. Nor because a lesbian scene took place in exquisite detail. The indecency arises because the film is neither kind nor informed by a generous spirit to enable one to get inside either the community itself or the members who either stayed or chose to leave. The film is not decent since it is not adequate or appropriate in advancing our understanding.

Though not an offensive portrayal at all of a very restrictive life style, part of the reason the film falls so short is its insensitivity. And that insensitivity seems to be a product of ignorance. At one point in the film, there is resistance to Ronit attending the hesped, a Jewish equivalent to a eulogy, honoring her father. It can be a separate event, but there is no explanation either of its nature or why this celebration of the Rav, normally held prior to burial, occurs much later, except for the convenience of the director since Ronit returned from New York too late to attend the funeral. And the director wants to juxtapose this free spirit without a wig who smokes and wears short leather skirts with the wigs and long skirts of the women of the community.

Though the ordinary life of the homes, the local shops and the school are portrayed reasonably honestly, unlike the novel, Judaism is not. The film offers a tension between rebellion versus religion when the religion is intimately about resistance to obedience to God’s will while, at the same time, trying to conform to it.  Rebellion is internal to the religion, not an external force.

Like A Fantastic Woman about illicit love involving a transgendered woman who cannot assume her justified place upon the death of her partner, this movie concentrates on a sympathetic view of the relationship between Ronit and Esti. That community is portrayed as intolerant, repressive and narrow-minded. Ronit, the only child of the Rav, the spiritual leader of the community, returns upon learning of the death of her father. She had left the community many years earlier to become a photographer of note in New York and to live a radically different lifestyle of cigarettes, casual sex, and a quirky aesthetic focus. One surprise of the film is the absolute mundane quality of the use of the camera and the choice of what to film, especially given the aesthetic choice Ronit made.

The problem is nuance. The problem is subtlety. The problem is simplification to the edge of boredom. There is virtually no challenge for Rachel Weisz to inspire her to perform at the top of her game. In My Cousin Rachel, Rachel Weisz played a woman who was enigmatic. Was she beautiful and innocent and decent or was she sly and conniving in the cleverest ways? There is no such suspense in Disobedience.  Even though Ronit is supposedly devastated on hearing of the death of her father, even though the traditions she inherited were written into her DNA so that she tears her clothes upon hearing of the death of her father, the rest of the movie brackets the depth of her conditioning to simply present her as a free spirited rebel, one who happens to still love her father even though he disowned her. We never learn why she loved her father so deeply. We never feel a tension between an identification with the community in which she was raised and the freedom from restrictions she currently enjoys in living away from that community.

In watching the film, you may ask whether Esti will leave her husband and her community and return to New York with Ronit, but it will be a perfunctory ask, for Esti lacks the psychological complexity to be torn by such a choice. Is she too burdened by convention? But Esti initiated the renewal of the affair; Esti is presented as having the more unbridled passion. Yet the option as presented is as simple and unreal as one between passion presented as animal instinct and submission to the restrictive rules of an insular community. Instead of ambiguity, the viewer is offered polarity in the guise of simplicity.

Further, the film is full of loose ends that seem to have nothing to do with deliberate direction and plotting. Why is Esti’s pregnancy mentioned but her previous inability to conceive ignored? What is the role of Ronit’s family’s candlesticks? I could not figure it out. And what about communication? Esti teaches Othello to her students, a tale about passion and betrayal, but the link is superficial and arbitrary rather than substantive. Yet communication, or its absence, seem central to the film since Esti cannot talk about her attraction to women to her husband, Dovid. Further, the problem between Ronit and her father was that they lost a common language as Ronit slipped into the role of capturing the moment, capturing a time rather than working to preserve moments of revelation for all eternity.

Sometimes incidents work in reverse. Tattooing on flesh in the opening of the film may be of voyeuristic interest to Ronit as an art photographer, but this is inverted when the imprint of tradition on her seems (most of the time) to have even less depth than the dyes inserted by a tattoo artist’s pen. The film may take place in dank and dreary London, but the interior of the synagogue is not the carved out innards of two semi-detached homes, but rather the classic beauty of a highly restored Orthodox synagogue.

It should be no surprise that each and everyone of the incidents pushing the plot forward are always coincidences. So are many of the background effects – the song “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman” playing as the deep attraction of Esti and Ronit comes to a climax, or Ronit turning on the radio in her visit to her old home with Esti and “Love Song” plays over the radio.

Serendipity is certainly possible, but then why not introduce the issue of chance and risk into the ethical dilemmas of choice that could provide some depth to this two-dimensional presentation. The members of the community whisper and glance sideways with critical stares. The conversations are awkward, made more awkward when Ronit challenges conventions. But some of those challenges are simply stupid. If she was raised in a ultra-orthodox community, why would she reach out to hug Dovid when she first sees him? It would have been bred into her DNA that this form of touching between a married man and a single woman was absolutely verboten and that her free spirit would have no thrust to cross such a barrier.

However, the film is not about aesthetics, but ethics. And very simplistic ethics at that. It opens with a scene on the bema of the gorgeous London synagogue where the Rav is giving a sermon which distinguishes between the angels, who have no choice but to follow God’s will, beasts who have no choice but to follow their instincts, and humans who have the freedom of choice, presumably whether to be beasts who follow their instincts or angels who follow the will of Hashem. Where does the choice Moses had to make fit into this simplistic schema? As the Rav’s sermon rises to a crescendo in articulating the fatal choice humans have, serendipitously he collapses and dies. But he is reborn in the sermon offered by the film in favour of freedom of expression without considering its own problematic status.

The parashat of this past week was about God introducing Himself to Moses and, in effect, seducing Moses into becoming the leader of the Israelites in the pursuit of their freedom. The story is full of ironies for the new name of God is identified as having a Midianite source. The sense of the rule of law and its delegation to judges rather than political leaders, so integral to Judaism, comes from the Midian priest, Jethro. The influence from the outside challenges the people and inspires them. Outside influences are not always or even mostly an external threat. A movie that fails to recognize this tension between the external and the internal, one even written into the DNA of God who finally exposes himself as an inner spirit as well as a powerful protective one via an outsider, is blind and does not even have the insight of a photograph. Missing this internal tension, especially within ultra-orthodoxy, was a lost opportunity and voyeurism’s gain.

This type of coincidental conjunction repeats itself throughout the film to the point of exasperation. After we are one-quarter into the film, we learn that Ronit, Esti and Dovid were best friends as teenagers. The film plays with the audience. Ronit is surprised that Dovid and Esti married. If one is on a conventional track, one presumes that this may be because Dovid and Ronit were once involved in a relationship and Esti was Ronit’s best friend. But the movie turns convention upside down and it is Esti and Ronit who were involved. Esti’s father, the Rav, had discovered them in bed together, precipitating Ronit’s flight from the insular ultra-orthodox community.

This plot inversion also occurs with respect to the camera eye. On the one hand, Ronit loses her detachment as a photographer as Dovid is cast in that role of a bystander looking on, but without the aesthetic distance to take in the picture in front of him. Dovid had previously been adopted as the Rav’s prize pupil, protégé and ostensible successor at the age of 13. On the verge of taking the place of the Rav, he comes to a climactic scene when he abandons that role and confesses that he does not have sufficient understanding. Did that mean that he could not boil the issue down to the simplifications of Rav at the beginning of the film where the incredulity of the film began?

The actors are wonderful even if their parts as written are not. Virtually everything else is wrong with the film. The houses in which the Jews live are neat, ordinary and monotonous and the angles and choices of vision in the synagogues and the homes are suitably, at least to the dominant theme, claustrophobic, but where was the visual inventiveness of A Fantastic Woman, an important signature of the director? The women wear wigs. And the focus is on eating and praying, and, in this film, on sex. For once the passions between Ronit and Esti are slowly reignited, visual and perpetual adolescent passion takes over. The Rav appears to have been correct. Instinct is powerful and unremitting, so the choice between surrendering to instinct and following God’s will becomes stark and tortuous. This is a cliché.

When we produced Israel Today, we broadcast a film made in the ultra-orthodox film school in Jerusalem, Ma’aleh, about a woman with children who lives in that community, but slowly begins to discover she is gay. In another film, the title of which I recall, A Little Bit Different, Chava, who called off her engagement a year before, is once again being introduced to a man to marry, but in this one, the tension between prejudice and openness is reversed. It is the one who is more free spirited who is revealed to be the one who is more prejudiced. That movie is more in the vein of Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice.

These films, without any of the production values of Disobedience or its lofty level of acting, however, were much more authentic and far less contrived both in the presentation and the theme. The plots were also about tradition versus freedom of choice, but the ethical frame was not caricatured. In the first, the plot was about how the husband, following such a strict regimen, in spite of the dominant mores and the excruciating pain he felt as he gradually learned of his wife’s infidelity, learned to accept and adjust to her persona. In the second film, it is the woman who carries the prejudices, but they are ordinary ones rather than community or anti-community attitudes. In both cases, these were tales of tolerance within a very hermetic and narrow community.

These were amateur student films, but the passion was felt and not just presented before the camera like the weirdness of a tattoo. In Disobedience in the scene when lust and love between Ronit and Esti finally burst open in the inner sanctum of a hotel room to which they escape, the passion simply is not there even if all the varied lesbian moves are present in exquisite detail. The choreography may be exemplary, but the scene just does not make it. Further, and much more fundamentally, the moral choice is simplistic to the point of caricature of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. In the ultra-orthodox amateur film there had been nuance and sensitivity instead of simplicity and raw passion presented as a detailed but unfeeling performance.

The story of a sensitive and loving man facing a crisis in his marriage and exhibiting that love in the form of empathy and understanding was so much more powerful than a tale of the tension between one woman who had freed herself from the restrictions of her home community and another repressed by the community. We never learn or acquire any understanding of why Ronit went one way and Esti stayed.

The ethical dilemma as presented is simplistic to the extreme. Films made by ultra-orthodox female students in an ultra-orthodox film school can put forth the position that there is no prohibition in Torah against a love affair between two women – and the relationship between Naomi and Ruth almost comes across as such a love affair. The Jewish prohibition is against adultery even though in practice ultra-orthodox communities reject lesbian relationships as a matter of practice. But they, as any community, can struggle with the issue. In contrast, this is never understood by the director. Reductionist ethics is both a bore and an insult to the community represented.

With the help of Alex Zisman


God Introduces Himself to Moses – Part II

Christian theologians insist that God is immanent as well as transcendent, always available, always accessible to even the most innocent among us. One does not have to be a scholar or a theologian to address God. Many Jewish theologians argue that God is only immanent, that is, insofar as what counts in God, insofar as He can be known. God can only be found in the mundane, in the material world, in the conflicts of daily life, in movies and in poems that try to find spirituality within the material world. If, and that is a very big if, if God is transcendent, He can only be approached as an immanent experience. There is no transcendent Being, at the very least, one that can be known, that is other than immanent or in which the immanent is subsumed as simply one characteristic of the divine.

The great Jewish Kabbalist, Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh (Israel and Humanity, 1865: 1995), insisted that Hebraism was the common proto-religion of all of humanity. Judaism is its guardian and witness and, as such, has a duty to provide a light onto the world. God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God said that it was good. That ray of light did not and could not have revealed divine law as something immutable, rational and universal. The law the Israelites offered to the world was not such a transcendent law. (See Christine Hayes, What’s Divine About Divine Law: Early Perspectives, 2015) It was entirely particularistic and revealed its application to all humanity over time. The application was universal, not the character. And so it is with God Himself.

There is a problem, however, even with an immanent God. If God is always present, always accessible, why did God forget His people? Why did they have to suffer so much and shry so loudly? And if God were so open, so accessible, why was Moses’ first reaction on hearing the introduction fear? Why did Moses hide his face? Why did he not want God to see him?  (3:6)

There does not seem to be any suggestion at this point that Moses is open to God’s embrace. In fact, Moses is wary. Moses might be in awe of God’s power, of El Shaddai, but Moses would have to look into himself to discover YHWH. God’s voice might come from the burning bush, but Moses had to learn to listen to YHWH whose voice came from his own soul.

God answers simply. He explains His own mission and why He was there – to rescue the Israelites from their oppression and to take them to Canaan. Moses will be the rescuer. For the cry of the Israelites had finally reached Him and He personally witnessed Egyptian oppression. Then God told Moses that He needed him, that God needed Moses. Moses had to go, see Pharaoh and ask, “Let my people go.” And when Pharaoh refuses, God implies, then it shall be your mission to free the people.

Moses protests. Why me? God answers, “Not you alone. I will be with you.” And when you succeed, you and the Israelites will resume your worship of Me. Moses queries, “But how will the Israelites know that I have the backing of God, of their God? Tell me your name.” God responds. In Exodus 3:14, God’s answer in Hebrew is, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” This has been commonly rendered, certainly in the King James translation, as I am that I am. Robert Alter in his translation records the phrase simply as I am, I am. Gunther Plaut in the body of the text skirts the issue and simply transliterates the Hebrew. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” Orally, Ehyeh certainly resonates with the sound of YHWH. It was among the Midianites that Moses experienced YHWH.

Jacob was renamed Israel. But his twin, Esau, became the father of the Edomites who went to live among the Midianites, the descendants of Abraham and his wife, Keturah, and the tribes that developed into the Midianite league of nations. Recall that Joseph was saved by being sold to the Midianites and they, in turn, sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt and re-sold him once again. The Midianites haunt the Torah as does the ineffable, YHWH. Moses had to go and live among the Midianites to discover YHWH.

YHWH historically comes from the hills of Edom and the Midianite area to the south in the Arabian Peninsula.

Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2) יְ-הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ… YHWH came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran, and approached from Ribeboth-kodesh…
Song of Deborah (Judges 5:4) יְ-הוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה… YHWH, when You came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom, the earth trembled…
Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3) אֱלוֹהַ מִתֵּימָן יָבוֹא וְקָדוֹשׁ מֵהַר פָּארָן סֶלָה… God is coming from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah….

YHWH originates from Seir adjacent to the nomad land of Yehwa, yhw(w) () which was within the Midianite league. (See Andrew LeMaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism) A historical grammatical answer concerning God’s self-revelation is also necessary to reinforce the archeological and historical evidence. According to the scholar, Professor Israel Knohl, “Proto-Arabic does not have the root ה.ו.י for the word ’to be’.” However, historical archeology and grammatical analysis are insufficient. One has to empathetically re-enact Moses’ encounter with God. What is stated is not simply a phrase, but a record of an experience. The translation must reflect that experience. And the experience is clearly NOT an answer one would normally offer a philosopher or a theologian. It is a, it is the, spiritual experience par excellence. God is a living personal presence.

Let’s step back a pace before we try metaphorically to stand on the same holy ground as Moses. Why does Moses ask God to tell him his name? For after he expressed doubts about his own unsuitability for the mission, Moses says, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13)

On one level, this a perfectly natural question. If you are acting as an intermediary and carrying a message to a party, surely they will ask who sent you? Not, in this case, who wants to know, but with whose authority are you here to make such a demand that we take a stand before Pharaoh? Why would the answer not suffice that the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of your forefathers sent me? Because the Hebrews were slaves, mentally as well as physically, spiritually as well as sociologically. Because their God had forgotten them. Because their God not only had not fulfilled the covenant with his people, but even seemed to have forgotten that He ever made a covenant. Their distress had made them not just sceptics but cynics.

What is surprising is that Moses did not share in the same cynicism. He was not even sceptical that God was talking to him, only sceptical about his suitability for accepting the assignment. Perhaps it was because he was not raised as a slave. In any case, when God explained first that He was the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob who addressed him, Moses hid his face. Presumably he did not duck. He held his palm over his eyes as is still done by parishioners who recite the Shema. Shema Yisrael, YHVH Eloheinu, YHVH Echad.  Muslims hold both hands before their face when they pray. Why cover your eyes when insisting that God is one? It is because it is not a time to look outward. There we might see the power of God. But only looking inward will we discover God as YHWH

Why? Was Moses afraid to look at God? (3:6) But how could he look at God if God was not visible? The point of hiding his face behind his hand or hands was not because he did not want to see God. Nor was it simply to focus on looking inward. It was because Moses did not want to be seen by God, seen to be staring and trying to see God. Moses was not in awe of God. He was not afraid of God. He was afraid that he would be so curious about God that he would try to see Him physically. It was an act of self-protection. At the same time, it was another indicator of why Moses thought he personally was unsuitable. He too feared that he wanted to see God in order to have proof when the only real challenge was to listen and to feel God within himself.

But if Moses could not see God, if he knew his fellow Israelites would want to see God if he was to be believed, the least he needed was God’s name. And God as simply the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob would not be sufficient. For that God had forgotten the Israelites, had forgotten His covenant with them and seemed blind to their suffering. God had to be more. What more was He?

One can explain the introduction of the new name through source criticism, that the new name comes from a different literary source. Robert Alter in his The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary does illustrate that this whole section is a combination of Elohist and Yahwist sources. But, as Alter knows, that answer simply begs the question, for the answer can only be left there if one presumes that the redactor was offering a scissors and paste mishmash with no effort to put forth a coherent narrative. If the latter was the case, the question remains. Why the new name at this point in the text?

The name YHWH is used in Genesis 4:26 when Seth, the third brother of Cain and Abel, began to invoke the Lord by name. But this is different in Exodus. This is the first instance of God’s self-revelation. Tell them that this message is from Professor Howard Adelman is very different than saying the message is from Howard. The former uses status to back up one’s authority. In the second, God stands naked as a source. He is a personage in his own right without the need for attributes or a positioning in the hierarchy of authority.

Who is the God that sent me? Moses answers with an enigma. This is a God who is both far more powerful and also far more personal. But most of all, it is a God which cannot be circumscribed by attributes, for God is a God of action. God will be what He does and will not be defined as if He were something that simply is. “I shall be whom I shall be.”  Or, “I will be Who I will be,” Or, “I shall be shall be.” I am a promise, not a fixed point let alone the record of My past deeds. I am a God who reveals Himself over time and through history.

“I am” offers a fixed identity, a set of essences for philosophers and theologians. “In God we trust,” means that you trust the future, that you trust that the future belongs to God and that God will reveal himself in that future. I, God, offer you a name that does not define me. And if you believe that the record of my deeds will tell you who I am, think again. I shall be whom I shall be. I will always remain the One who reveals himself in actions. Through deeds. In the future. Only when I finish will you understand my intent, as someone who shall be he who shall be, that is always a coming, a becoming and not a being. This is not simply an evasive answer but a profound one. For based on any record of the past, why would anyone trust God?

God is past. God is presence. God is promise. God is past because he is missing in action. He has disappeared. He has forgotten us. He has not broken any covenant, just misplaced it. God is presence. If you listen, you can hear. But most of all, as the text offers in the Hebrew imperfect of the grammar, the reference is always to the future.

Read the story of the past. Study it. That story is not simply a record of who I was and what I did. It is a story of My presence, the presentation of Myself to the future. And since I forget My promises, if you trust, then you will trust that I will remember and you will trust that you will learn who I am over time. You will trust in revelation. You will not look primarily outward but into your own soul.

God Introduces Himself to Moses – Part I Va-eira: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Evidently, in the Torah there are at least seventy names or depictions of God – Avinu Malkenu, Our Father our King; Eloheinu, Our God; Melech Haolam, Ruler of the universe; Oseh Shalom, Creator of peace. These are just a few examples. God is a shape-shifter, but without a shape. In this week’s Reform commentary by Rabbi Reuven Greenvald, he cites the contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam. “Responding to the opening of our parashah, Rivka Miriam describes her own evolving relationship with God through each twist and turn of her life—from being born to growing up, from marriage to divorce, from feeling supported to feeling abandoned—calling God by a different name each time—names so personal she doesn’t share them:

I spread out God’s names in front of me
on the floor of my chilly room.
The name by which I called him when his spirit
breathed in me.
And the name by which I called him when
I was a young girl …
The name by which I called him so that he
would remember me. And the name so
that he would refrain from remembering.
In the heat of the day I will prostrate myself
on the floor of my chilly room.”

However, two names are central. As Rabbi Larry Englander has pointed out, they are part of a mezuzah, El Shaddai on the outside and then the hidden inner God, YHWH, on the inside. As Rabbi Reuven Greenvald also points out citing midrash, there are “two components in shedaisheh  and dai, together meaning ‘it’s enough’—the Patriarchs got just enough of God that they needed.” The Israelites might be His people who are especially protected, a people whom God had forgotten but has now remembered as well as his promise to them, a people with whom He has a special covenant, but God is also the one God, the God for everyone and to everyone.

When Moses tries to introduce God’s new name to the Israelites, they do not listen to him. All Moses’ original fears that no one would believe him come flooding back. And his excuse for not relaying the message is repeated – “I am a stutterer.” “I am impeded of speech.” Why would Pharaoh listen to him when he uncontrollably repeats himself? Only when repetition is seen as having a high value rather than being a disability.

The reason for sending the plagues will not be just to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but to demonstrate God’s power over all, more specifically over the most powerful god then known, the sun god of Egypt.  More importantly is the way this is done – by showing Pharaoh that this enslaved people is equal to Pharaoh. Pharaoh is NOT a god and not simply less powerful than the God of the Israelites. Moses is placed in the role of God to Pharaoh (7:1) by repeating everything that God tells him and by having Aaron pass the message on to Pharaoh. The point of the plagues will be to prove that YHWH is the Lord by delivering the Israelites from their servitude. And when Aaron cast down his rod, it became a serpent just as in the case of the Egyptian magicians, but with one difference. Aaron’s serpent ate the serpents of the Egyptian sorcerers.

If we are to understand the true drama of this occasion, we have to go back to the earlier text when God first introduced Himself to Moses, no longer as God Almighty, but as YHWH, as the inner God. As Professor Israel Knohl at Hebrew University wrote following the lead of the scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein, the name YHWH “originates in Midian, and derives from the Arabic term for ‘love, desire, or passion’” from the Arabic root h.w.y (هوى), and the word hawaya (هوايا). It is about inner feelings not the externality of existence, nor the security fears and concerns of a particular tribe. And since He is the singular God, He demands exclusive love. Monolatry (the exclusive worship of one god) is the precursor to divine monogamy. And divine monogamy is a precondition for a universal monotheism.

Goitein “connected this suggestion with the passage in Exodus 34, in a set of laws known by scholars as the Ritual Decalogue. One of the laws, which forbids Israel to worship other gods, reads:

שמות לד:יד כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל אַחֵר כִּי יְ-הוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ אֵל קַנָּא הוּא. Exod 34:14 For you must not worship any other god, because YHWH, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.”

In Exodus, it is Moses who brings our attention to the suffering of the Israelites when, in a passionate rage and incensed at the injustice, he beats and kills a sadistic overseer in a vigilante action. God had clearly forgotten the Jewish people as they sweated and laboured under the ruthless whippings of their overlords. As I wrote in my last blog, when two other Israelites indicated that they had witnessed the murder and could, presumably, inform the authorities about the deed, Moses fled Egypt for the land of the Midianites, married the daughter of the priest Jethro, and had a son Gershon with his wife, Zipporah. It is in the territory of the Midianites that Moses is introduced to God as not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God as a security shield, but the God of passion demanding exclusive love.

God finally heard the cries of the Israelites. “Benei Yisrael sighed from the labour, and they cried out, and their supplication on account of the labour rose up to God. God heard their wailing, and He remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Ya’akov.” (Exodus 2:23-24) God finally heard the cries of the people whom He had forgotten when He had a heart and His heart was broken.

How did they cry out? They begged God to save them. They prayed. The verb used is וַיִּצְעַק. They did not just entreat (להעתיר) God. They cried out like the frogs would cry out. They were croaking. They were choking under the burden of long hours of heavy labour laying bricks layer upon layer. Pharaoh, like Emmanuel Macron with respect to French workers, considered the Israelites lazy. So did all Egyptians. These former shepherds, whom a former Pharaoh had given status, were not built like farmers who toiled on the land. They were used to just standing around and walking from place to place. The Egyptians, as they had when Joseph first came to Israel, loathed and despised the people of Israel. A shepherd had a very lowly status. Now they were governed by a Pharaoh who shared the same distaste as the people.

Moses, when he allowed his wrath to overtake his prudence, fled at the possibility his act of murder could be reported. He became a fugitive from legal justice and from the cries of his people. He returned to the traditional profession of his people, being a shepherd, but among the Midianites. Did this rash act wake the Israelites from their long slumber, from their acceptance of the status quo? Is that why God finally heard their cries when they themselves recognized how downtrodden they were and pleaded for help? I think not, because it was many years later before God assigned Moses his mission.

The Israelites were crying out for relief, not yet victory over the Egyptians, not yet for freedom from their yoke. They just did not want to be worked so hard. Turning the Israelites into a people with a determination to occupy their own land and become self-governing required much more than relief, even much more than the destruction of the might of the Egyptians. The Israelites had to learn that their God was the God of all there is, that their God was the only God. The whole of Exodus will be needed to teach that lesson.

God hears the cries of the Israelites, but it is an angel who first appears to Moses “in a blazing fire out of a bush.” Why an angel? Why not God himself? Why a burning bush when the bush itself does not burn? Moses himself asks that question (3:5), not just I or the myriad of other commentators throughout the ages. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at the marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up.” (3:3) That’s what grabs him. Not the sight of an angel. It is as if he only saw the wonder of a bush on fire without the wood itself burning. He saw the reflection of passion and rage that empowers rather than consumes the body. Did he not see the angel? Or was this the angel he did see?

I have a friend in Torah study who is unusual. He is totally uninterested in source criticism or in rooting the tales in the beliefs of the time, in historicism, or in linguistic historical research and archeology. He is only mildly interested in traditional grammatical analysis. He also has little interest in theology and understanding the conception of God, for example, God defined as the “one” by Plotinus, or as the ground of Being, as perfection, as omnipotent, as omniscient, or, for St. Thomas, an Aristotelian, as an actus purus and ipsum esse subsistens. All of that is peripheral. It is the experience of God that really counts. He is certainly uninterested in any psychological or sociological let alone political analysis of Moses – or God for that matter.

“My God!” he exclaims. “Can you imagine what it means to be in the presence of an angel and then hear the voice of God?” Like the Christian commentator, Gregory of Nyssa, in his De vita Moysis, Life of Moses, what counts is the record of the human-God encounter, and this time without the intervention of a dream or a created vision. “Just imagine what it must have been like.”

“When the Lord saw that he [Moses] had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush.” (3:4) The fact that an angel appeared in the burning bush seemed to be irrelevant. Or perhaps the burning bush without the wood being consumed was the angelic expression, was simply the visible manifestation of God. That was all Moses saw and it was enough to get Moses’ attention. God says, “Moses! Moses! Can you imagine God calling out to you by your name?” my friend asks. “It’s unbelievable.”

What is unbelievable is that Moses is unsurprised. He is not overwhelmed at the mystery of it all. He might have been startled at a bush burning without the wood being consumed, but a voice calling from amidst the burning bush seemed unremarkable. Moses just answers, “Hinaini. I am here.” Or “Here I am” or even “Here am I.” Which is it? Rabbi Plaut takes it to be the first. The stress is on presence. Moses’ name was called and he put his hand up. The stress is not on the “I”.

Your sandals are dirty. Take them off when you enter My presence. But do not come closer. You are already on holy ground. Moses is in Midianite territory and this is holy ground. Then God introduces Himself. After all, He could be any magical being. God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” (3:6) I am the God of your ancestors. Christians tend to interpret this answer as God already insisting that He is the universal God. But not yet.

For Christians, as well as very many Jewish commentators, God is both transcendent and immanent. God is totally other without any material existence, without passions and of infinite power and goodness. But any ordinary reading of the Exodus story tells a tale of a God set out to prove, not that He is all powerful, but that He is more powerful than all the rival gods. And more. That He is the only God. And God is filled with passion – with anger and rage, with jealousy and remorse. Further, He is anything but the epitome of goodness. He endorses theft. He is guilty of infanticide. He organizes ethnic cleansing and commits genocide. My rabbi may ask, “why is it written on the Supreme Court in Washington, “In God We Trust?” I answer, “Only if we distrust first.” Only if we ask questions. Moses did not connect to God by a leap of faith but through the path of doubt, almost all focussed on himself. But also on God.

Was Moses brazen in questioning God, even if it was simply because of being chosen to carry out God’s mission? “If you are so great, why did you choose me for this mission when I stutter, when I lack the respect of my fellow Israelites, when Pharaoh has no reason to listen to me let alone enter into a diplomatic discourse to free the Israelites?”

In the current film, Vice, George Bush Jr. needs someone with gravitas, with heft and experience in Washington and in foreign affairs. He asks Dick Cheney to be his vice-president when running for office. Cheney declines. He does not say, “Why me?” The message is the opposite. The position of a president-in-waiting without power is not for me. Cheney goes further. He offers to be a one-person search committee for a vice-president. But Bush wants him. And Cheney accepts, but only on condition that virtually all of the crucial powers of the presidency are his responsibility. According to the film, Bush Jr. is simply Cheney’s mouthpiece. In the Torah, however, Moses is truly God’s mouthpiece.

Moses makes no deal equivalent to Cheney’s. He questions, but he is not really brazen. The issue turns out to be not whether Moses is or is not worthy of the mission assigned, but whether God will be with him, will be within him, for only then can Moses speak in the name of God. Even then, just for raising that question, Moses is rebuked by God. Moses will simply be the one through whom God speaks to the Israelites, speaks to Pharaoh, speaks to the world. Who is this God for whom Moses will speak?

To be continued.


On the Competition for Recognition Part XB Political Dissension in France

In the previous blog I opined that political divisions in France took place between the liberals in the centre and the left on one side and the right on the other. I also presented evidence that using the category of Muslim to define a voting group was misleading even as I documented the extent of Islamicist violence in France. Islamicist antisemitism was more extensive. Despite its pervasiveness, there were only a few instances in which Jews were specifically targeted by terrorists. I now want to put this within a larger frame.

My thesis is simple but far from original. With the exception of his vision for dealing with radical Islamicists that is so misplaced, Emmanuel Macron’s economic and social vision has been spot on. But definitely not his method for getting there. Betting on vision meant treating Macron as an emanation of the Second Coming so that he was crowned the successor to Donald Trump as leader of the free world. That was appropriate since both had been political outsiders who gambled and threw a seven with their dice on the first attempt. Macron had the advantage, though. He was not a grifter. He was also a highly experienced technocrat who had served as an unelected Minister of Finance in the Hollande Socialist government.

The evidence of Macron’s fall from grace does not simply come from the weekly rallies of the Gilets Jaunes, the Yellow Vest Movement, rallies that became violent when they were used by lawless, anarchic youth (casseurs) and Black Bloc militants to smash store windows, set fires and hurl cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at police. Macron’s fall came because he felt so weak that he had to renounce some of his core policies, but with virtually no gain for the concessions. Those concessions only made him look weaker than he already was.

What united the protesters was their hatred of aloof elites; Macron was their embodiment. Even if the casseurs and Black Bloc militants had not joined, the magnitude of the protests shocked the establishment in Paris. Why were these French men and women from the countryside so deeply hostile? And they were so without any central organization, association with any political party, left or right, and de facto leaderless.

To get the Champs Élysées open again, Macron:

  • Repealed the environmental gasoline tax that fueled the protests;
  • Rescinded a tax that aroused the ire of pensioners;
  • Increased the minimum wage in contrast to his opening salvo of his rule, loosening the labour code;
  • Once on his knees, Macron cut taxes for workers and offered additional benefits for low-income employees.

He said he had learned his lesson. He said he had learned. But he did not reinstate the wealth tax.

These moves would have been great if introduced at the beginning of the Macron presidency. These moves were not simply a matter of too little too late, but too little too soon. For if he failed to introduce those reforms before the tax cuts for the rich, when he should have, introducing them in the face of populist people’s marches in the streets simply undercut the whole principle of liberal government, of responsibility assigned to lawmakers who remain accountable to the people at election time. The concessions were a direct surrender to populist politics over responsible democratic government. It should be no surprise that the Yellow Vests demand more and more as they watch the aloof leader of liberalism stumble back on his haunches, barely keeping himself on his feet.

What a trial for liberalism. But it is endemic to globalism and its liberal elite – simply made worse by French elitism. For what was lacking was the ability to read the pulse of the people. And surrendering to that impulse is not leading. It is not enough to believe in a more equitable distribution of the wealth of a country when there is no actual empathy for the plight of workers and the unemployed in society. That is the problem with operating from an intellectual framework that provides an understanding of the world. That approach becomes much worse with a deductivist Cartesian spirit often immune to facts on the ground that could falsify that theory, as exemplified in the French approach to Muslims in general and the hijab controversies more particularly.

Donald Trump may be an ignorant fool, a braggart and a liar, but he does know how to talk to the man, and some women, in the street. There is no sophistication. He would not only bore but turn off those who love language, who love articulation of ideas in well chosen words and metaphors. With Trump, there is no high style. Only glitz and glamour. While Macron dreamed of literary glory as a child, Trump only dreamt of money – money, money, money, for money makes the world go ‘round. The need, that desire for money, is recognized by every individual striving to get and keep out of the lower class and achieve a more secure branch on the economic ladder.

Thus, although Trump has even less empathy, real emotional empathy, for the working poor than Macron, workers can identify with his material striving, with his neediness. Macron was a research assistant for the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, a hermeneutical phenomenologist who viewed experience as something to be interpreted rather than lived and who viewed the world of letters and thought as something also to be interpreted to see if it reflected the interpretations from experience. To say that this was not a preoccupation of the ordinary working stiff is an understatement. For workers, this was all bafflegab, bafflegab that their taxes supported and bafflegab that provided a common language for the elite from which they were excluded. Further, real life was not found in novels and poetry, in essays and ideas, but in the back-and-forth material and verbal exchanges as life is lived in the banlieues of Paris.

Nor did Macron ever have to learn the art almost all politicians acquire of glad-handing and of deal-making. Instead, he reigned through the power of self-confidence. Macron floated into the presidency from on high, without a parachute or a back-up plan, into the upper reaches of the Élysée Palace like Mary Poppins, but without the umbrella. Macron believed he was a patrician, but when it was discovered that he neither had the ear nor could even listen to the people, instead of being true to his own ideals as a patrician, he displayed that he was not really to the manor born. He did not want to and was unwilling to say, “Let them eat cake,” though when they objected to the tax on diesel fuel on which they relied as a necessity, he suggested that they buy electric cars. To be part of a governing elite is one thing. To show disdain for the public is another. To combine both with concessions to a popular uprising undermined any popular respect for him. As Cole Stranger ended his article on Macron in The Nation, if in 2016 “Trump saw his election as a sort of giant episode of reality TV, Macron treated his own more as the ultimate competitive French entrance exam.”

He had scored big. A++. Macron ran on a platform of neoliberal reforms to free the system from the barnacles and weights of unnecessary regulation that limited flexibility and adaptability, all laudable and easily achieved objectives. However, workers were penalized by the reforms to the labour code. And when he reformed the tax structure, though he redistributed the burden of taxes from the middle class to the rich, he also abolished the wealth tax. Were rentiers deserving but workers were not? He lowered the speed limit on roads and class sizes in universities. He closed rural schools because their enrollments were too small, but also courts, clinics and hospitals on the argument that they were underused and on the basis of the principle of equality, He cut both a wide and a deep swath. And he promised retraining opportunities for workers.

Though he delivered on the initial items on his platforms, the last was left for the future when it was the workers who needed to be attended to first who would be hurt by changes in production, increased taxes on gasoline and less beneficent rules for labour. But when he was not on guard, he let slip his disdain for French workers whom he considered lazy and spoiled. Further, he left reform of the EU, to which he was fiercely loyal, also to the future when it was widely distrusted in the provinces. And he did nothing to invest in the decaying suburbs and the inadequate transport system in the banlieues, the Parisian suburbs, at the same time as he cut underused rail services in the provinces. He could not have alienated a wider swath of the French populace even if he had intended. Yet he was taken aback by the protests, their persistence and their power.

In his book Revolution, Macron had declared that, for France to succeed, “the solution is in ourselves. It does not depend on a list of propositions that will not be acted upon. It depends on just one thing: our unity, our courage, our common determination.” This was neither a formula for a political maven nor for a technocrat, but appeared to be the guiding principle of a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau appealing to the primacy of the “general will.” Macron was an anti-populist who believed that the goal, not just the instrument of politics, was to express, not reflect, the will of the people. In the Discours sur l’économie politique, Rousseau had used the phrase “general will” and in Lettres écrites de la montagne, Rousseau defined law as “a public and solemn declaration of the general will on an object of common interest.”  But a social safety net is important to members of the working and middle classes. It is not a common interest which requires that everyone be treated equally before the law, the core meaning of a general will.

The general will is not a doctrine of populism, but a guideline and boundary to determine the frame in which a legislator must work. And Macron failed to understand that and instead first focused on correcting the economic environment to make it more competitive, an action clearly neither of interest nor benefit to working people. Macron wanted an economy that would save the earth, again a laudable goal, but not one in the immediate interest of the working class if the costs for saving the planet were to come out of a worker’s pocket.

America is a democratic monarchy. I live in a parliamentary democracy where a representative of the monarch is only a figurehead, an important figurehead, but a figurehead intended to represent and touch the hearts of all the people. Macron wished that France had become a democratic monarchy. Though he did not want to be a sun god, he openly expressed a desire to be the largest planet in the political solar system. He wanted to rule as Jupiter. “Democracy does not suffice for its own needs. In the democratic process, and in its functioning, there is an absence. In French politics, this absence is the figure of the King, whose death, I believe fundamentally, the French people did not desire. The Terror left an emotional, psychic, collective vacuum: The King is gone!”

However, all its efforts to create the semblance of one from Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle forward were failures. Because, by definition, an elected politician cannot a monarch be. An elected monarch does not have inherited authority. Therefore, all attempts to create an elected monarchical system end in failure to a significant degree and to the extent parliamentary norms are subverted.

America tries to make this so when it views the president as a creation and exemplar of the constitution that provides the source of hereditary authority. In France – and in Israel – this is accomplished to a degree by electing a Prime Minister from a heroic military background. However, Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which the people always dreamed of having a king rather than judges ruling them. That system also fails when the supposed elected monarch is more interested in being an autocrat than an expression of the general will. The general will is reduced to the detritus of a rubbish heap of populism.

As Macron faces both the populism of the left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the populism of the right led by Marie Le Pen, he faces the possibility of their unification, most likely on the right, as they demand a constitutional cap on the taxes of workers at 25%, as they demand a massive increase in social spending on infrastructure. The liberal global economy has made the rich richer, the poor poorer and those in the middle far less secure, has strengthened large population centres while draining the small towns of their youth and leaving behind dysfunctional remnants of what had been the essence of the true France as urban areas become the concentration points for technology.

Instead of covering the rest of Europe, I will next turn to an economic analysis to complement my excursus into identity politics.

With the help of Alex Zisman

On the Competition for Recognition Part X A Political Dissension in France – Islamicist Violence

If the deepest divide in the U.S. is between the right and left, whatever the divisions within each of those rivals, if the deepest divides within the UK are within the left and within the right, the deepest divides in France are between the center and left on one side and right on the other side. After all, Emanuel Macron came into the presidency by running as a centrist against Benoît Hamon for the Socialists and François Fillon for the Republicans on the right. Fillon was felled by a scandal. The Socialists had been weakened by the failing presidency of François Hollande. Macron emerged from the pack to face Marine Le Pen in the run off, with predictable results. And he managed to create his own party to run for the legislature following his election. La République en Marche won a clear majority. Initially, it had no effective opposition but also little experience on its own side. A 39-year old political novice was supported by an inexperienced cohort.

Some commentators mark the divisions in France as left, right and Muslim. This is a mistake. Six million Muslims in France constitute 8% of the population. Characterizing Muslims as marginals torn between their Muslim and French identity is simply false. Muslims are either liberal or left. In 2012, 86% voted for François Hollande. “Muslims tend to mostly cast a left-wing vote” as a “class vote of a stigmatized minority.” (Hakim El Karoui, “Is there a ‘Muslim vote’ in France?” Brookings, 27 April 2017)

The May 2016 survey of the Institut Montaign and the Institut français d’opinion publique (Ifop) concluded:

  • No “Muslim community” or organized communitarianism exists
  • Belonging to and engaging as a Muslim tends to be private
  • Muslims in France have little commitment to community-based initiatives (only 5 percent belong to a Muslim organization)
  • There are very few denominational schools in France – only 10 for 1.3 million Muslims younger than 15
  • Political choices are very weakly influenced by the candidate’s actual or supposed connection to Islam
  • Only 19% would vote for a candidate just because (s)he was Muslim
  • Because 30% are not citizens and because their sense of participation in French political life is also weak, the Muslim electorate is only 3.6% of the total, half their proportion of the French population
  • Muslim citizens mostly want a stable job (93%), a decent degree (88%), and an ability to afford accommodation (65%)
  • A higher social status is more important than a Muslim or ethnic identity

As mentioned in the blog on Britain, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) recently completed a survey of 16,500 across twelve member states. It was the second such survey – the 2018 MIDIS II, the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey. Ignore its findings on child poverty, discrimination against the disabled, different genders and the aged. The report concluded with respect to racism that there had been no progress since its last report. With respect to antisemitism, the report confirmed the British findings, that most antisemitism is Muslim in origin. Jews increasingly, though still occasionally, avoid public events and feel wary. The problem is especially acute in France which has both the largest Jewish and largest Muslim populations in Europe.

The Islamicist attack against a Toulouse school in 2012 set off a slow Jewish exodus from France, primarily to Israel. Seven died, including the rabbi and his two children. Jump to this past year. A march was held in March to honour a Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, who had been stabbed eleven times in her apartment in the 11th Arrondissement in Paris. Her body was then partially burned. Two suspects were arrested; the murder was being investigated as an antisemitic hate crime. One apparently said to the other, “She is a Jew. She must have money.”

A year earlier, a young Muslim man aged 28, Kobili Traoré from Mali was accused of murdering his neighbour, Lucette Attal-Halimi, 65, an Orthodox Jewish physician known by her Hebrew name, Sarah Halimi. The murderer tortured Sarah Salami and then threw her body off the balcony. In July 2018, Kobili was found unfit to stand trial. These are just some examples. But they have not led Jews to engage in widespread Islamophobia. For one reason, most of the attacks have not directly targeted Jews. Further, only 1 in 100,000 Muslims have participated in these terrorist attacks.

In addition to the Toulouse attack mentioned above, three major Islamicist attacks took place in France since then and before this year:

Île de France          Jan. 2015     20 killed      22 injured

Paris                      Nov. 2015  137 killed      415 injured

Nice                       July 2016     87 killed      434 injured

Two major attacks took place in 2018, in March in Carcassonne and Trèbes where 5 were killed and 15 injured, and in Strasbourg last month; 6 were killed and 11 injured. In the other 19 attacks, 18 were killed and 40 injured.

Borrowing from Wikipedia with minor edits, the following offers a more complete list of Islamicist violence in France:

Date Type Dead Inj. Location and description
11-22 March 2012 Shooting 7 5 Toulouse and Montauban shootings of three French paratroopers, a French Rabbi and three schoolchildren (aged eight, six and three) over a period of 11 days by Mohammed Merah.
23 May 2013 Stabbing 0 1 2013 La Défense attack by an Islamist knifeman against a French soldier in a Paris suburb
20 December 2014 Stabbing 0 (+1) 3 2014 Tours police station stabbing. A man yelling “Allahu Akbar” attacked police officers in Joué-lès-Tours with a knife, injuring 3; he was killed.
7-9 January 2015 Shooting 17 (+3) 22 January 2015 Île-de-France mass shooting at the antifascist satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, carried out by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, two Islamist gunmen who identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and a third Islamist gunman and close friend of the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly, who shot two and took another hostage at a Hypercacher kosher market. The three pledged allegiance to ISIL.
3 February 2015 Stabbing 0 3 3 military men, guarding a Jewish community center in Nice, are attacked by Moussa Coulibaly (not related to the January Coulibaly attacks).
19 April 2015 Shooting 1 0 (+1) Unsuccessful attack against 2 churches in Villejuif by an Algerian jihadist. He killed a woman probably when trying to steal her car but accidentally shot himself in the leg, putting an end to his plans.
26 June 2015 Beheading 1 2 Saint-Quentin-Fallavier attack. An Islamist delivery driver probably linked to ISIS decapitated a man and rammed a company van into gas cylinders at the Air Products gas factory in an attempt to blow up the building.
21 August 2015 Shooting and stabbing 0 3 (+1) 2015 Thalys train attack. An attempted mass shooting occurred on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. Four people were injured, including the assailant who was subdued by other passengers.
13-14 November 2015 Shootings, hostage taking and suicide bombings 130 (+7) 413 November 2015 Paris attacks. The single deadliest terrorist attack in French history. Multiple shooting and grenade attacks on a Friday night targeted a music venue, sports stadium and several bar and restaurant terraces. 90 were killed in a siege at an Eagles of Death Metal concert inside the Bataclan. French president François Hollande was evacuated from a football match between France and Germany at the Stade de France, venue for the UEFA Euro 2016 Final, after three separate suicide bombings over 40 minutes. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.
1 January 2016 Vehicle ramming 0 2 A man rammed his car twice into 4 soldiers protecting a mosque in Valence to kill troops; jihadi propaganda images were found on his computer.
7 January 2016 Stabbing 0 (+1) 0 January 2016 Paris police station attack, a jihadist wearing a fake explosive belt attacked police officers in the Goutte d’Or district in Paris with a meat cleaver, while shouting “Allahu Akbar”. He was shot dead and one policeman was injured. The ISIS flag and a clearly written claim in Arabic, were found on the attacker.
13 June 2016 Stabbing 2 (+1) 0 2016 Magnanville: a police officer and his wife, a police secretary, were stabbed to death in their home by a jihadist. ISIS claimed responsibility.
14 July 2016 Vehicle ramming 86 (+1) 434 A 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The driver was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of France. The attack ended following an exchange of gunfire, during which Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot and killed by police.
26 July 2016 Stabbing 1 (+2) 1 2016 Normandy church attack, two terrorists attacked during a mass, killing an 86-year-old priest. ISIS claimed responsibility.
3 February 2017 Stabbing 0 1 (+1) 2017 Paris machete attack. A soldier near the Louvre opened fire on a man who attempted to enter the museum with a machete. The man, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” injured the soldier’s scalp.
16 March 2017 Letter bomb 0 1 letter bomb, probably sent by Greek anarchist organization Conspiracy of Cells of Fire, exploded at the French office of the IMF injuring one person.
18 March 2017 Shooting 0 (+1) 2 2017 Orly Airport attack injuring a policeman in the Paris suburb of Garges-lès-Gonesse; the attacker, was shot dead after trying to grab a soldier’s rifle.[
20 April 2017 Shooting 1 (+1) 3 April 2017 Champs-Élysées attack. An Islamist opened fire on police officers on the Champs-ÉlyseesISIS claimed responsibility.
6 June 2017 Melee attack 0 1 (+1) 2017 Notre Dame attack. An Algerian Islamist attacked a police officer with a hammer. He was shot by a second policeman and arrested. He had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
19 June 2017 Vehicle ramming 0 (+1) 0 June 2017 Champs-Élysées car ramming attack. A jihadist rammed his car into a police car. He was killed and the Department of Interior stated that explosives, AKM assault rifle and handguns were found in his car. The attacker had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
9 August 2017 Vehicle ramming 0 7 (+1) 2017 Levallois-Perret attack. A man rammed his car into soldiers near their barracks outside Paris. He was arrested on the highway after a shootout.
15 Sept. 2017 Melee attack 0 2 A man sought by police, who are investigating a possible terrorist motive, attacked two women with a hammer in Chalon-sur-Saône near Lyon about 15 minutes apart, shouting in Arabic. Earlier a knife-wielding man attacked and was stopped by an anti-terrorist soldier on patrol in Paris Metro train station without injury.
1 October 2017 Stabbing 2 (+1) 0 2017 Marseille stabbing. A man stabbed to death a 20-year-old woman and a 17-year-old girl at Marseille-Saint-Charles Station. Attacker was shot dead. He was heard shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. ISIS claimed responsibility.
23 March 2018 Shooting, hostage taking 4 (+1) 15 Carcassonne and Trèbes attack. A gunman affiliated with ISIS attacked and stole a car in Carcassonne, killing the passenger and wounding the driver. He arrived in Trèbes and shot at a group of police officers who were jogging. Then, he attacked a supermarket, where three people were killed and several others were injured.
12 May 2018 Stabbing 1 (+1) 4 2018 Paris knife attack. A Chechnya-born French Muslim, armed with a knife, killed one pedestrian and injured several more near the Garnier Opera in Paris before being fatally shot by police.
11 December 2018 Shooting and stabbing 5 (+1) 11 2018 Strasbourg attack. A gunman opened fire just outside the Strasbourg Christmas Market, killing 5 and injuring 11. Killed in a gunfight with security forces two days later.

Given the character of the Muslim population in France, given the persistence of Islamicist violence, quite aside from its horrible character, why has Emmanuel Macron invested so much political capital in creating an “Islam of France” through training Imams domestically and educating Muslims in secular values? Macron seems predisposed to stamping the Muslim “community” with parallel forms of organization to other religious communities through a top-down approach considered both patronizing and irrelevant to most French Muslims. Further, there is no evidence that such organizations would undermine Islamicist extremism, especially when the most radical Imams seem to be born in France. Religion does not determine radicalization.

As I have written before with respect to the hijab, bans were motivated by the ideology of laïcité and the effort to make religion disappear from public life rather than any empirical evidence that hijabs had anything to do with Muslim radicalization. The current French government (ironically advised by El Karoui quoted at the beginning of the blog), following both its conservative and socialist predecessors, is attempting to apply its inherited ideological formulations to the Muslim population. (Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2016 attempted to ban burqinis on beaches.) The effort is simply misguided and a waste. El Karoui believes that the headscarf has been a decisive emblem of Islamism, the political ideology that has inspired violence. Empirical evidence finally gathered by an American sociologist proved this to be unequivocally false. (See Howard Adelman (2011) “Contrasting Commissions on Interculturalism: The Hija’b and the Workings of Interculturalism in Quebec and France,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32: 3, June, 245-259.)

It is not only the government that is misguided. In spite of all the research on the behaviour of the French Muslim population, though declining, 43% of the French public still view Islam as incompatible with the values of the Republic. The efforts of the government seem more designed to placate a misinformed public than deal with Islamicist radicals.


To be continued

On the Competition for Recognition – Modern Antisemitism Part IX C (ii) Antisemitism in the Political Left in Britain

It should be no surprise then that 40% of Jews in Britain insist that they would “seriously consider” leaving Britain if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. After all, left-wingers are responsible for 25% of the incidents of antisemitic harassment in the U.K., twice that of right-wingers. (Muslims are responsible for 30% of such incidents.) Many Jews now are wary of displaying symbols of their religion on their bodies and on their homes.

A major difference between the U.K. and the U.S. can be found in the laws governing hate speech. In the U.S., hate speech is not even regulated. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment protects hate speech as an expression of free speech. In contrast, and ignoring differences between England and Wales versus Scotland and Northern Ireland, the U.K. does regulate hate speech.

Part 3 of the 1986 Public Order Act prohibits expressions of racial hatred defined as hatred against a group of persons by reason of the group’s colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins. Part of the restrictiveness in the application of the law arises because intent has to be proven and, also, the words must actually be threatening or abusive, sufficiently to stir up hatred. Insulting a Jew or a Muslim to a friend would not constitute illegal hate speech. The characteristic that the language could also be insulting was removed subsequently from the legislation to protect critics of Islamicist terrorism from being accused of hate speech. In 1994, the Act was amended to add a prohibition against causing alarm or distress and in 2000 to include the intention of stirring up religious hatred, both changes more concerned with Islamophobia that anti-Zionist antisemitism.

The law does not prohibit anti-Zionist antisemitism. If Zionism is a political ideology about the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, the law does not restrict any language that claims that Jews do not and should not have such a right, even when that position if often heavily larded with classical antisemitic tropes. Thus, the law would not restrict anti-Zionist antisemitism in the U.K. any more than in the U.S. In the name of freedom of speech, both countries offer a wide swath for openly and avowedly anti-Zionist antisemites. But why is it more pervasive in the U.K. than in the U.S.?

There are at least two phenomena that explain the difference. The first is the different patterns of migration to the two countries so that as a percentage of the population, Britain has a higher percentage of Muslims than in the U.S. and hence, expectedly, even if only a minority, a higher percentage of Muslims who advocate anti-Zionist antisemitism. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2015, there were about 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S., about 1% of the total U.S. population. The comparative proportion in the U.K. is 5%. On the basis of statistics alone, however small the group of anti-Zionist antisemites in Britain, their numbers are bound to be five times those in the U.S. The intellectual background in Britain makes the percentage of modern antisemitism even higher still.

Secondly, classical antisemitism has deeper roots in the U.K. than in the U.S. and far more frequent expressions in spite of the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue this past year. Further, those incidents in the U.S. predominantly come from the right. The majority of such incidents in the U.K. comes from the left, even though classical antisemitism is far more pervasive with deeper roots on the right and, as expressed, had very little offensive activity in the U.K. The 2017 Institute of Jewish Policy Research in its largest and most detailed survey of attitudes towards Jews and Israel ever conducted in Great Britain, concluded that the levels of antisemitism in Great Britain were among the lowest in the world. Only 2.4% of the population expressed multiple antisemitic attitudes. Further, 70% had a favourable opinion of Jews. The difference, however, was that only 17% had a favourable opinion of Israel; 33% were very unfavourable and that position found its repository largely on the left.

However, unfavourable attitudes to Israel do not constitute antisemitism. Actions do. In 2001, there were nearly 300 antisemitic assaults, incidents of vandalism, cases of abuse, and threats against Jewish individuals and institutions. By 2005, the numbers had doubled. By 2018, the frequency had risen to 100 per month. The incidents of Jews being targeted in the street in random attacks have quadrupled in two decades. There were 1,382 incidents in 2017, an increase of 3% over the year before (1,346 incidents). Most situations involve verbal abuse randomly directed at Jewish people in public. But there are also physical assaults. Three-quarters of those incidents took place in Greater Manchester and Greater London, the two British cities with the highest population of Jews.

Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement for the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) said that, “Antisemitic crime has been rising dramatically since 2014 and that rise is not explained by an increase in reporting, and we have seen no noticeable impact from Brexit… Jews are being singled out disproportionately and with increasing violence due to the spread of antisemitic conspiracy myths originating from Islamists, the far-left and far-right, which society is failing to address, as evidenced by the ongoing disgraceful situation in the Labour Party, and because the Crown Prosecution Service declines to prosecute so often that antisemites no longer fear any consequences to their actions.”

Many commentators in the U.K. blame the pervasiveness of an irrational hatred of Israel and the evidence that authorities have turned a blind eye to Islamicist fanaticism lest they be accused of racism. However, the incidents of classic antisemitism in the Labour Party have been less than 0.1% according to Shami’s inquiry. The problem lies in modern anti-Zionist antisemitism. Corbyn’s consistent critique of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank so easily slips into a critique of Zionism per se. It can be recognized even when debates over the weaponization of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust have been bracketed.

The substitution of a one-state solution for the two-state solution, for example, has been defended on the grounds of democracy, even though it would mean that Israel could no longer defend itself as the state of the Jewish people. Instead of democracy plus self-determination, too many on the left in Britain defend democracy in opposition to Jewish self-determination and in favour of a supposedly non-nationalist self-determination of the people in Israel-Palestine, but one which would, in reality strongly favour Palestinian self-determination. National self-determination and ensuring the principle of equality for all citizens are not incompatible as the politics within Scotland indicate.

Justifiable critics of Israeli actions of forcible ethnic cleansing to some degree in 1948, where there were no immediate security issues, are falsely equated with an “eliminationist” ethic. Forcible transfer, a common practice in Europe after WWII, however disreputable now, is not equivalent to an exterminationist ethic. Those critics also somehow usually fail to note that all of non-Jewish Palestine had been made Judenrein, cleansed of Jews, including the Old City of Jerusalem. Too few Palestinian nationalists offer Jews equal citizenship in a future Palestinian state. Israel offers Palestinians equal citizenship, though it often fails to live up to that ideal.

Critics of Israel justify the unique obloquy and singling out Israel, not, as they say, for its Jewish character, but for its alleged unique impunity. Yet Israel has been denounced in the UN more than all other countries combined, including countries clearly guilty of genocide or of targeting the middle as well as upper classes in its society, such as Venezuela. The socialist tradition in Britain, whatever the degree of quality in its self-examination and self-criticism, has still failed to come to terms with the propensity to conflate classical antisemitism in the dress of anti-Zionist antisemitism.

Jeremy Corbyn is not Bernie Sanders. Ironically, while class-based analysis has seen an unusual resurgence in America, the British left has been moving away from a class-based narrative towards a primary concern with events in the Third World rather than the decline in real wages over the last decade among the working class in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn is a product of the New Left rather than the Old Left. The heroes of the New Left were Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh. Many of the remnants, like Corbyn, applauded the late Hugo Chăvez in Venezuela. On the latter’s death in 2013, Corbyn tweeted, “Thanks Hugo Chăvez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”

Corbyn cheered Chăvez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, for his commitment to democracy and socialist values even though Maduro banned protests and rigged democracy in Venezuela to keep himself in office. Labourites Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon, John McDonnell, and others echoed those sentiments. Meanwhile, Venezuelans, reduced to poverty, flee in droves as inflation reached a million percent while Labour Party sympathizers organized a Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign early this year.

The connection to antisemitism? Anti-Zionist antisemites are imbued with post-colonial studies that portray Israel as an imperialist colonizing outpost of the West. Corbyn is part of that heritage. He attended a ceremony in Tunisia, not in 1972, but in 2014, that honoured the perpetrators of the Olympic Munich massacre. He befriends Hamas and denounces efforts to portray jihadists in Gaza as terrorists.

That, in the end, is why the Shami inquiry missed the main point, though it confessed that Jeremy Corbyn had created a “safe space” for antisemites, as when Ken Livingstone argued that Adolph Hitler supported Zionism. That is why its recommendations focused on criticizing the use of epithets like “Paki” and on drawing parallels between Hitler and the Holocaust and pasting over the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The other recommendations focused on procedural issues and second order norms, none of which can touch the endemic deeply rooted modern anti-Zionist antisemitism in the current Labour Party.

It is ironic that when the deepest challenge Britain currently faces is Brexit, Corbyn offers so little leadership on the issue while, at the same time, he is preoccupied with “colonized peoples.”

With the help of Alex Zisman