Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Stronger IN

So the moment of truth has finally arrived and I have decided to vote REMAIN. Here is why.

First and almost last is simply because the UK cannot go it alone. It doesn't mean the country will break down or fall apart (though with Scotland that too could happen) but simply that the UK that emerges after exit is complete will not be the same country it is now. It will not be as strong economically, financially, culturally and in so many other areas where we make a difference in the world by what is known as soft power.

In today's world it is the very largest countries and trading blocks that matter. In a world of the USA, China and the EU (without us) the UK stands not a chance. It may be the 5th largest economy in the world but that is precisely because it is a member of the EU and the rest of the world can buy its products and services and deal with it under the EU framework.

I could go on to quote economists, scientists, politicians and business leaders the world over who've been popping up in droves but there is hardly a need. If there is a choice between joining neighbouring countries in trying together to improve all our lives and make the world a better place or standing aside and withdraw into ourselves the answer, to me at least, is self-evident.

But we want our country back, say the Brexiters. The sovereignty of this country is being lost to Brussels, they complain. We are a plucky little country and we can go it alone. It was our finest moment in the 1941 and we can do it again.

But for the sake of what? For the right to decide our light bulbs, the suction of our vacuum cleaners and the speed of a cupa? Is that what was at stake in World War II and for which we fought? And who is to guarantee that it won't happen anyway if they become international standards (in which we have little say) or if it is introduced by a future Labour, or indeed, Conservative government? There are far more important things at stake than the regulations which exist in every country to some degree and much of which will have to be reinvented if Brexit was to win.

But, they say, Norway and Switzerland manage so why can't we? Well, there is a simple answer. Norway has a population of 5m and Switzerland 8m whereas Britain has 64m people. So what are we comparing here? Britain has a permanent seat on the Security Council, is a member of the G7, a nuclear power and her language is the international lingua franca. We may not lose all this overnight but our influence will wane and are we to risk giving it up for the sake of turning ourselves into Zurich gnomes? Zurich and Oslo may be pleasant enough places but only London is one of the greatest metropolis in the world for tourism, art, culture and of course finance. Show anyone outside Britain a map and ask them to point to Norway, Switzerland and the UK and which are they most likely to get right?

It is this soft power as well as the financial muscle which is at stake. Losers quit and quitting in this case can lead to national decline, economic strife and social unrest. And all for the sake of what? We begged Europe in the 1970s to be accepted, we got our way on the Euro, on the social charter and other issues. Even on immigration, just look at the barriers as you enter the tunnel in Calais to see that immigrants from outside the EU cannot come in easily. And as for people from EU countries, let them come.

When I ask Brexiters whether they prefer Poles, Romanians or people from other continents I don't need to tell you what the reply is. We are surrounded by immigrants running convenience stores, cleaning our homes and offices, builders, plumbers, mechanics and the like. If Brits wanted to do these jobs the Europeans wouldn't come. My father and grandparents were once immigrants from Europe and so is most of our community. I like the ease with which I can travel throughout the continent and I am happy to share that comfort with people from neighbouring countries. When the US introduced draconian new visa rules in the aftermath of 9/11 it was the EU that could object whereas Britain on its own would be laughed out of court. Just see how we capitulated to the US on the Iraq war where Britain had full sovereignty.

It is always easier to wage war than to broker peace and peace is rarely perfect. Europe was twice at war in the last century and on each occasion it dragged with it the entire world. If you asked a soldier in the trenches or a passenger on a cattle truck what they thought of a Europe at peace for more than 80 years in return for some powers transferred to a central body in which we all have a say, what would their response have been? Where is the sense in going it alone in a fast changing world where Russia is resurgent, China is belligerent and the USA pivots to Asia. Who will care for a tiny island singing Land of Hope and Glory and harking back to its heyday of empire and literary giants if it refuses to join in with its neighbours in embracing the future?

And as for the supposed benefits of £350m a week, even if we assume it is true it will never reach us. The government is not run from a single cash register from which you draw set amounts. At the end of the cold war we were promised a peace dividend, yet I do not recall a hospital, school or other project which was built because the cold war had come to an end. Government is a vast pit and by digging up one part you do not fill another. The money, whatever it amounts to, is swallowed up somewhere else and in this case much of it will be spent replicating what we already have from Brussels.

So I come to my last point which is the very crude question, is it good for the Jews? While the question can be a legitimate and important one it is also often raised by those who cannot think beyond Jewish interests. Europe has, for better and very much for worse, been a home to Jews for 2000 years and perhaps more. We have seen the best and the worst of Europe though our history in the UK has not always been rosy either.

However, as a project the EU has been at worst Jew-neutral and at best a very positive development. True there have been calls from Europe on Shechitah but then so have there been calls in the UK. There are indeed very nasty and virulently antisemitic political parties in Europe but they have no sway over EU politics or policy. From the UK to the Baltics it is the neo-nazi parties who are bitterly opposed to EU membership. It is tyrants like Putin and dangerous nutters like Trump who hate the EU and look what they’re doing or propose to do to their own countries and to their neighbours.

The EU has the protection of minorities at its heart and from which we as a people benefit. We more than anyone else know the consequences of a divided Europe and we should be happy that Europe with the UK in its midst is a stable, prosperous and vibrant place.

For these reasons I am IN.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Sink or Drown

So we're in the headlines again. This time no one's been arrested or convicted, no abuse has been covered up, no school is faced with closure and no followers of 2 rival rebbes have come to blows. Not only are we in the headlines but some of us even got a ride on a chopper - for free - while the consolation prize for the rest was a trip on a real lifeboat.

This is mamesh the matzev of matzevs except that, strangely, Hamodia sunk the story on page 39, which is probably where Pravda buried its story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. I must be exaggerating because of course there was no disaster, nuclear or otherwise, and all that happened was that the lives of 34 boys were at risk but anyhow nothing happened in the end especially after Shomrim turned up on the scene so what's all the fuss about?

Well, let me tell you exactly what the fuss is about. The fuss is that our schools, communal leaders, rabbis, askonim and the whole bang lot of individuals, committees, institutions, charities, organisations, va'ads and whatnots give not one hoot for our children or our adults for that matter. You read that correctly: not one hoot. That is what the fuss is about though given the washes we're put through some might think even that's not a great deal.

When it's abuse we say it's not true because the allegers have left the community and so perforce must be lying. When a guy, a menahel no less, is caught on camera red handed he's apparently showing affection to the poor kid. And when we are finally forced to confront some uncomfortable truths because the lies and cover-ups have exhausted themselves we switch gears. Sexual issues are too sensitive for our poor fragile souls and so it's best for the victims to be sent packing while the perpetrators continue plying their wicked trade unhindered. And all the while doubting whether the modern world's fuss about the whole subject is all that it's cooked up to be.

If it's corporal punishment the tone shifts yet again. The odd beating has never done any harm, it's being phased out and it was just a one, or two or three, off. When it's accidents, well we have Hatzole so no one needs to know. And when it's just a downright lousy education in decrepit buildings, it's because we care for their souls and that is what really matters.

We have become so desensitised to what we're capable of that even after a saga like this it took headlines in the national and local press - but never our own - to tell us exactly what went wrong. It would not be fair to name the yeshive concerned because they are no worse than any of our other local schools or yeshives. One could argue they are better because while the rest of the kids were dragged off to the most idiotic demonstration only our turnip-brained unemployed are capable of putting on, this yeshive at least gave its kids a day off. They also did not take them to Chessington Zoo or Trent Park or some other unimaginative outing but travelled further afield to Dover with its white cliffs and stark coast line. Mind you they did take some local flak but that was not for the risks they exposed the kids to but rather for taking the boys on frivolous excursions a few days before Shavuos. Just imagine the boys had been introduced to Vera Lynn and The White Cliffs of Dover, now that would have been a scandal.

As a catalogue of near, and actual, mishaps has shown, whether it's Clissold Park, Dover or Kathmandu, as far as some of us are concerned, the dress code must always remain the same. Our kit has supposedly seen us through two thousand years of exile and so it should be able to withstand the odd rough patch thrown up by the British Isles. Thus, whether it's the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia, Cumbria or, as in this case, below the Dover cliffs, forget Berghaus or North Face. It's black city shoes, buttoned white shirts, suit trousers with a below-knee jacket and that on top of a waistcoat. A concession of Tzitzis on top of shirt may be made but only for the super cool trying to earn their Nike swoosh. Just don’t do it, ought to be their moto.

This attitude is not confined to the UK and covers not just kids. To the contrary the more of us there are the worse it gets. Just over a year ago, two people were trampled to death at the funeral of Rav Wosner in Bnei Brak. Of course, accidents can happen anywhere but it’s the reaction that marks out the responsible and sensible from the daft and reckless.

No enquiry was set up, no one has been prosecuted, no one has lost his (always 'his') job and no one has been held accountable in any way. That is two people dead. Passed away. Went up to Heaven. Went to the Garden of Eden. Whichever euphemism you choose to employ will not hide the plain and simple fact. Two people were killed by the gross negligence of reckless idiots who assembled a huge crowd late at night without any prior planning and co-ordination and contrary to the advice given to them.

There were all the tears in the world for the bride of one of the victims and for the other victim's widow and child because we are experts at after-the-event nausea. Yet a single stitch in time is just too much to fathom. And when it comes to finger pointing it's anyone but ourselves. Those responsible nebech have wives and kids, and they didn't mean it, they really meant well, consider the amount of chesed they've done in their lives and all the other excuses we so expertly produce for those rare occasions when our denials are too much even for ourselves.

So it comes as no surprise that here too our response was as if on cue. In its report on page 39, Hamodia published a photo not of the boys or the RNLI but of a Shomrim squaddie who seem to have moved on from nabbing muggers in Stamford Hill to coastguard rescue in Dover. It was left to the Hackney Gazette to ask the obvious question of how it was allowed to happen because to our newspapers the boys, sorry the bochurim, had simply 'got lost'. Lost, that is, despite 9 signs telling them not to do exactly what they went and did. As a friend said to me in shul, our community is like the person to whom a 'wet paint' sign is an invitation to poke a finger.

After all, where's the wisdom and ingenuity in following the well-worn path? Follow the tracks of the sheep, is a figurative exhortation to dress in yeshive-wear while out trekking but as for any practical application, well we just don't do the literal stuff. Rules are there to be broken and signs to be ignored. And our newspapers are there not as a fourth estate but to cover up for the other estates. They're there to admonish us for talking loshon hore and during chazoras hashatz but not for trifling matters like saving lives. That would fall into the category of rubbish recycling, gardening and other veiberishe zachn which real heimishe guys don't engage in. So the front-page headline was reserved for the 'UK' anti-education demo which in reality was nothing more than a morning off for Stamford Hill kiddies who were unlucky enough, or very lucky depending on your point of view, not to be taken to Dover for the day.

And lest I forget there was the reaction of the PR firm. The same Shimon Cohen who popped up in the aftermath of the Scottish misadventure 12 years ago showed his face yet again. In both incidents an 'investigation' was promised though this time 'parents' also made an heroic £5,000 donation. These are the same 'parents' who if not for the providence of mobile phones would presumably be donating to the defence fund of whoever was accused of whatever might have befallen the boys. Now add, chas v'cholilo, and chas v'sholem, and 'you mustn't say that' but still do nothing practical and hold no one to account. If I were one of the supposedly investigated I wouldn't lose a minute's sleep unless some outside body decides to poke its nose into our affairs and in which case expect a yom tefilo linked to an urgent fundraising drive.

But for now life goes back to normal. Boruch Hashem for the great miracle that nothing happened. The closer the shave with death the greater the ness and so all the more reason to be grateful for the Chasdei Hashem. Never mind that we have had several drownings in the last few years, all of which were the result of entering the water at unauthorised spots and at inadvisable times. Never mind that there was a drowning in Miami a few weeks ago where some chasidim took a dip close to signs warning of riptides. If you hold demos not to have to study geography how on earth will you discover what a tide is. The sea is dangerous, we know that, and if we survive it we have Hoidi on Friday evenings to thank for the miracles towards sea dwellers. And if we don't survive it well then it's a reminder that we must repent and show more respect to our gedoilim and dress tzniusdig and be grateful to Shomrim for averting an even greater disaster. Omein.