The Milk of Human Kindness

May 24, 2010

Shavuoth is a mysterious Jewish festival.  Being neither an exact anniversary nor conforming to the harvest cycle in the land of Israel, it seems to exist outside of time, an exception  to the chronological flow of the Jewish seasons.  Just as puzzling is the custom of eating dairy products on the festival.  Ascribed by many to the inhibitions of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, over the laws of kashruth, there are myriad reasons explaining the consumption of dairy products on this Festival, although none are entirely convincing.

Perhaps each of us  needs to build our own understanding.  For the Davis family in Melbourne, Australia, dairy products were an inseparable part of life – they were the family business.  Not only was I born on the family’s dairy farm on the outskirts of town, but my grandfather David, who had purchased the farm twenty years earlier,developed it into a thriving milt delivery business.

Succeeding him, my father dramatically expanded this business by adding yogurt.   Keren Dairies, taken from the Hebrew words for ” ray of light” became a symbol of pride for the small Jewish community of Melbourne.   It proved that Jewish immigrants, raised inthe cloistered villages of Eastern Europe, could defy prejudice and ridicule and by rising to an Australian challenge,  become successful men of the land in their own right.

My grandfather was a quiet, circumspect man who rarely spoke of his past.   But occasionally he would share a story that gave me a glimpse into his early struggles.

One of those stories I have never forgotten.

In the early 1930s he would rise before dawn to deliver milk in a horse drawn dray to customers in the inner suburbs.  He would rattle his canister filled cart from door to door, ladeling milk into pails and bottles.

On this daily journey he would often come across an obstreperous man who would grandfather while  lie in wait for him.  The man would regularly hurl a stone or shoe at my grandfather while jeering at him with antisemitic slurs.  He would sometimes go so far to place heavy objects on the road to prevent his passage.

The abuse continued intermittently four years. But one day it stopped and the man disappeared. My grandfather asked some of the man’s neighbors what had happened to him.  They explained that he had suffered a stroke and could no longer leave the house. Inquiring further he discovered that his tormentor was close to destitution and had no relatives.  From that day forward my grandfather would leave him milk everyday. He did not cease the practices until the man died.

I was astonished when I first heard this story.   When I asked my grandfather why he did this, he answered simply, ” He was probably thirsty and I was carrying milk,.”

I remembered my grandfather’s actions a few years ago when I saw a photograph posted in a edition of the Ma’ariv newspaper . It showed an IDF soldier providing water to one of five handcuffed terrorists, captured on their way to executing a bombing in Israel.  Among the five members of the terrorist squad, two were carrying explosive belts.  A further 17 kilograms of TNT was found inthe trunk of their car.

Similar reports reveal the way in which the IDF provided food for the trapped terrorists and their hostages inside the besieged Church of the Nativity in 2002.  There are remarkable accounts of Israeli medics treating surviving terrorists, rushing them, often inthe same ambulances as their victims, to Israeli medical facilities in order to save their lives.

Many decades and thousands of miles separate my grandfather and the IDF soldiers.  Yet they are bound by the enduring legacy of Jewish tradition and the respect for the sanctity of life.  It is taught to us in the Book of Exodus   “when your enemy’s donkey falls down, you must help to raise him up.”

The promise of holiness, delivered to the Jewish people at the time of the giving of the Torah on the festival of Shavuoth, is embedded int his simple teaching. It defines our concept of humanity.

It is one of the supreme ironies of my life that my grandfather died on the first day of Shavuoth.  It was also fitting that his great grandson, born 27 years later, would be named Matan David, the gift of David, linking the boy to his forbear and to the climatic event of Jewish history – the giving of the Torah.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy he can absorb is that even in the face of adversity, the milk of human kindness must still be delivered.

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?

May 24, 2010

No one can accuse  the British musician Elvis Costello of straightforward exposition.   His deadpan lyrics are usually twisted around mixed metaphors, convenient puns and general non-sequiturs.  His album titles themselves give away a penchant for clumsy juxtaposition – Blood and Chocolate, Mighty Like  A Rose, Secret Profane and Sugarcane and Extreme Honey are just a few of the titles which betray Costello’s essential intellectual superficiality and lack of depth.

Nevertheless, Costello is often referred to as Rock’s Thinking Man’s  a title that has won him wide acceptance beyond  his fast evaporating rock  fan base and within the halls of academia as well as among the upper echelons of the classical music world.

How much of a ” thinking man”  Costello actually is, was put to the test recently when the musician weighed whether to cancel his two appearances in Tel Aviv, Israel which were to take place in June 30 and July 1 respectively.   In a lengthy post on his website, he explained his reasons for breaking his contract and disappointing the legions of  Israeli fans who had already paid to attend the concerts.

If anyone can make sense of this garbled and verbose self justification then they have my undying admiration.   Costello doesn’t seem to understand that if adding your name to a concert schedule can indeed be interpreted as a political act, then certainly removing your name from the same schedule can be regarded in exactly the same way.    Surely Costello understands that the demonizers of the Jewish state will use his cancellation as evidence of his acknowledgment of Jewish “apartheid” – a claim and a designation which is as spurious as it is ill informed.
While he rightly point out that one can’t really know anything about the Middle East conflict without first hand experience and that the issues are too complex to be addressed from the stage,  he then goes on to contradict himself by making the nonsensical argument that as a matter of conscience  a foreign  musician performing  in Israel cannot ” simply look away.”

But from what, exactly?    From the fact that Israel is a democracy , governed by the rule of law?  From the reality that thousands of its citizens have been killed and maimed by Palestinian suicide bombers; that Israel has made repeated concessions over  fifteen years without any reciprocal attempt of  Palestinian leaders to quell anti-Israel incitement or confiscate arms or that Israel has been faced for 60 years with the single minded determination of its neighbors to seek its destruction?

Either Costello’s interlocutors didn’t adequately brief him, or else he refused to study  the voluminous record of Palestinian atrocities that might have been made available to him, but if he had he might discover that there are actually good reasons that Palestinians suffer “intimidation, humiliation and much worse”  – and that is because Israelis don’t want to die.

Policies of national security, in case Costello has forgotten, is about preventing harm to one’s citizen’s. The notion that no policy of national security could justifiably visit “intimidation and humiliation” on another people, betrays Costello’s own acceptance of the canard ( and contrary to his own earlier assertions)  that Israel is not faced with a significant national security threat.

Then we come to Costello’s claim that his decision “is a matter of instinct and good conscience.”

Well, perhaps he might have deployed his antenna for injustice a little earlier, when his managers first  broached the Israeli venue and before contracts were signed and tickets sold.   His Johnny-come-lately recognition that  he  was about to stumble into a minefield, simply rings hollow.  Perhaps Costello doesn’t read the papers ( or only hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest) but there is plenty of information available about the Middle East conflict that would have afforded him an opportunity to determine whether to sign a contract in the first place , before deciding to make  his public (and very political) statement about withdrawing from it.

Finally we arrive at  this verbose and totally unintelligible line:

“It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts.

Well, Mr. Costello, for someone who  doesn’t imagine himself ” to possess any unique or eternal truth,” you seem to have stumbled on some true gems:  ie: politics and politicians are wicked; official government communique’s cannot be trusted;  Israeli apologists are cranks and supporters of Israel as a genuine democracy in a sea of anarchy and despotism are simply vain and self righteous.

One has to wonder where the musician ultimately did find his information.  What libraries did he scour in the search for objectivity?  And if he was so concerned to sift through ” his own conflicted thoughts”  wouldn’t a clandestine trip to Israel to assess the true situation have given him an effective platform from which to avoid the ” cranks”  and “hysterical” politicians, he seems to so distrust.

The Thinking Man, ends his contemplative message with this Shakespearean flourish:

“I have come to the following conclusions.

One must at least consider any rational argument that comes before the appeal of more desperate means.

Sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static and so an end to it.

Would this master soliliquizer have heeded his own advice!  Years hence, Costello scholars will be pouring over these words in order to plumb their inscrutable meaning.  Which ” rational argument”  was this sage referring to?   Ah, it must have been the  “argument” of Palestinian advocates who claim that it is only Israel’s  intransigence and its will to power that stands in the way of peace. Well, that seems pretty rational.  After all, if you accept that strong is always wrong and weak is always  right, then you are bound to select the Palestinian narrative as the rational one every time – no matter their consistent resort to the “desperate means” of terrorism and suicide bombing.

Silence would have indeed been better than  this hopelessly convoluted justification for an act of cowardice.   Costello, apparently afraid of what an appearance in Israel might do to his career (although it didn’t seem to harm his fellow Liverpudlian Paul McCartney) and brandishing a supposedly bruised conscience, has only added to the” static” with his ill timed and incompetently  argued contemplation.

There are plenty of ways to promote  peace , love and understanding.   But better to come from the pen, mouth or guitar of a man who actually knows what he is talking about, rather than one whose heartfelt expressions of concern for the innocent and  intellectual pretensions are just a mask for his base ignorance.

May 24, 2010

Is Anyone Interested in the Truth About Communism?

May 15, 2010

Claire Berlinki, whose book, Menace in Europe, was one of the influences for the organization of  the first AFA conference in June, 2007,  has written an important piece in this Quarter’s City Journal, that everyone should read.

It deals  with two Russian exiles.  The first is Pavel Stroilov, living  in London,who has on his computer 50,000 unpublished, untranslated, top-secret Kremlin documents, mostly dating from the end of the Cold War and which he stole in 2003 before fleeing Russia. The second is Vladimir Bukovsky, another emigre, who possesses a large  collection of stolen and smuggled papers from the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which, as he writes, “contain the beginnings and the ends of all the tragedies of our bloodstained century.”

Berlinski goes on to explain:

“Within living memory, they would have been worth millions to the CIA; they surely tell a story about Communism and its collapse that the world needs to know. Yet they can’t get anyone to house them in a reputable library, publish them, or fund their translation. In fact, they can’t get anyone to take much interest in them at all.”

Why is no one interested in such a fantastically rich trove of documents about the beginnings and end of a regime that consigned to death over 35 million people?  Surely historians would be champing at the bit for an inside view of such a repugnant institution.

Stroilov himself  explains the indifference in this way:

“a kind of a taboo, the vague common understanding in the Establishment that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie, not to throw stones in a house of glass, and not to mention a rope in the house of a hanged man.” I suspect it is something even more disturbing: no one much cares.”

An argument could be made that it may still be too early to exhume the corpse of the Soviet Union.   After all, the shell shocked First World War generation didn’t begin producing  their memoirs for a full decade after  the end of the conflict and Holocaust studies did not kick into gear until thirty years had passed from the end of the Second World War.

But I have another explanation.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the repudiation of Communism as an integrated economic, social and political system, came as an embarrassment for the West’s intelligentsia.  They, who largely saw it as an important prod to Western greed and expansionism, are still oriented towards socialistic idealism, while clinging to dreams of its revival.  Thus many of our politicians, academics, entertainers and social leaders are noticeably uncomfortable discussing the collapse of the Soviet Union since the very subject inspires reflection on the nature of the repugnant and failed system to which it once gave birth.

But failure to confront these realities, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn bitterly pointed out in his last years, encourages a historical numbness,which inevitably erodes our ability to make distinction between righteous and evil systems of government and good and bad economic philosophies.

Someone will, eventually, publish and translate these documents.   But it will have to await a time when our intelligentsia has the courage to admit the reality of a collapsed dream and evince a willingness to move on.

Greetings from the Land of Smiles

May 15, 2010

In case you haven’t noticed, that resplendent locus of calm, the land of the King and I and the world destination for millions of tourists seeking cheap sex and drugs – the Land of Smiles, is fast becoming the land of billowing smoke .   Those who once visited Thailand would have a hard time envisioning what is happening there today.

Bangkok  is under siege – an apparent  war zone where thousands of poorer citizens – many of them farmers and itinerant workers – have staged a rebellion ( it is far too early to call it a  civil war) against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, claiming that his ouster of the corrupt former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra years ago, was illegal.  Not exactly without precedent, these rebels have adopted red as their color of protest.  There are many demands about the redistribution of wealth and the eights of the poor.  Hence,  we are seeing a new “red ” insurgency taking on again a governing power.

Where have we seen this before?

Try the French Revolution and the uprising of the Sans Culottes and their participation in the September Massacre of 1792.   Or the murderous Paris Commune of 1871; the rampages of the Bolsheviks through the streets of Moscow of  1917 or the attack of the Khmer Rouge on Phnom Phen in 1975.     To some extent they were all Red Shirts with much the same agenda- to remove by force a governing regime and install a “people’s” government, which would strip away the privilege of rule from the country’s  upper classes.

We also know where it all leads.   Not only will shirts be red, but the streets will run red with the blood of thousands who are regarded as enemies of the state.  The movement to unseat a governing power,  that owes its origins to rural discontent, never ends peacefully and in  fact guarantees a level insecurity and instability for years into the future.

The crack down by the Thai military – even if , as at least reports, it has resulted in the death of eight protesters, and much as it might be reminiscent of the crackdown in  Beijing’s  Tianamen Square in 1989, should not be regarded as the reflex of an oppressive dictatorial regime.  It should be seen for what it really is -the necessary measures of a democracy to restore order before unrest spreads to the entire country and anarchy sets in.

Let us then be spared then the unhappy editorials in the New York Times and  the Washington Post, bewailing the frightful loss of  life.  The Red Shirts of history have demonstrated that they can wreak far greater destruction of life and property if appeased.  Returning the smile to the Land of Smiles may not involve the most felicitous of measures.   But at least it will bring a semblance of stability back to a once famously stable nation.

My Son’s World History Class

May 14, 2010

There is very little I enjoy more than discussing  the history of western civilization with my son.  He has a keen mind and a limitless curiosity about our past and we can spend many hours picking apart historical events and personalities.

He is unusual.  Most ninth graders wouldn’t spend a minute with their parents discussing the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India  or the fall of the Shoguns in Japan.

He attends an Orthodox Jewish day school in Los Angeles, well known for its out-of-the- box thinking on education and its emphasis on character development.  Lately we have been preparing for his history exam, which will provide him with most of his grade for the year.

It was in reviewing his teacher’s notes and comments on his papers and assignments that I began becoming somewhat concerned.  In one particular assignment, with which I had helped him, she had downgraded him for his comments on the value of Westernization in the 19th Century and his insistence that colonialism had actually brought some good things to foreign countries .  She correctly pointed out the depredations of King Leopold II in the Congo and the avariciousness of many colonial settlers from South Africa to China.  But it was her sneering comments about the moral and cultural equivalence of Western civilization to the native cultures encountered during the colonialist era, that got me riled.

There is a tacit acceptance in our schools that modern European history is irredeemably tainted by the presence of racism and supremacist ideologies among the Western nations who colonized the world.  Unfortunately there is a concomitant  failure to adequately appreciate the spread of the ideals of individual liberty, democracy and the belief in the sanctity of life which Western expansion also facilitated.

It is true  that some terrible crimes were committed in the cause  of human progress by Westerners seeking to bring  Western values to native peoples.      But this history  should not be allowed to shade our appreciation of the fact that there would be no commonly agreed standard for human rights,  no emphasis on human dignity and no commitment to peaceful resolution of conflicts without the colonists’/ imperialists’ intrepid work.

We live in a world where the legacy of the West comes under daily assault and it is brought about largely by those who feel that Westerners have something to atone for.

Perhaps I need to speak to my son’s history teacher about this, but for the rest of us, it might pay to spend some time remembering what the world once looked like without Western intervention and whether we would like to go back there.


May 14, 2010

Thirty years ago, it would have been unthinkable.  That right wing British conservatives would forge a union with left wing liberals in a coalition government would have seemed as likely to Thatcherite England as the Queen embracing Judaism.  The two parties, sporting ideologies miles apart – one party encourages free enterprise and the other to redistribute wealth – might now look  doomed to an early divorce.

But that would be mistaking the ungainly complexion of U.K. politics today.    Cameron’s Conservatives look nothing like Thatcher’s.  They have cooled their heels for 13 years in the political wilderness  watching as Tony Blair’s vapid centrist ideology wooed British voters through four national elections.  The Conservatives learned something in those years.   They learned that they were ” uncool” and out of touch.  They learned that traditional Conservative politics did not appeal any longer to a polity drenched in a multicultural ethos and Euro-centric philosophies. And they learned that they could only win an election by looking and feeling more like Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

Under Cameron’s four year leadership the Conservatives have therefore  undergone a transformative facelift, revealing them to be Conservatives without any true conservative convictions.   Civil liberties and human rights crowns both domestic and foreign policies.  Israel is regarded askance and the Trans Atlantic Alliance, so crucial to the defense of Western attitudes and values, is given less priority than the attachment to Europe.   Not once did Cameron refer to the decline of British traditions and values or the merciless multicultural assault on British identity.  Nor did he seek to address the alarming spread of a homegrown Islamic menace in England which has transformed London into Jihad Central.

The result is that for the first time in modern British history, conservatives are left without any true political representation in Parliament.  Those who are deeply concerned that their  local supermarket is now owned by a  Muslim who won’t offer alcohol or the sale of pork, or city Councils who declare it a hate crime for anyone to inveigh against homosexual practices and rights, will find no support from Cameron’s  Conservative Party nor even from the Anglican Church, both of whom now side with the multi-culturalists and the moral relativists.

So rather than being a shot gun wedding, the union of the Cameron Conservatives with the Clegg Liberal Democrats is more a marriage made in heaven than anyone might have expected.  Besides rancor over some basic economic issues, there is in truth very little difference between any of the current British parties and it is small wonder that Cameron didn’t seek to build a bridge to Labour first.

This is terrible news for the West.  With both the United States and Great Britain run by post-Christian governments,  refraining from any attachment to the support of the values and ideals upon which Western civilization has been built, I have to wonder whether those who believe in the transformative impact of  the Western Enlightenment on human freedom and liberty will have any role to play in our future.

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