Wednesday, October 29, 2014

My Trip To Poland

In this essay, written in 1990,  George Jochnowitz recounts his visit with his wife to Poland, something that I would like to do one day with my wife, since Poland is the nation where my father and his family lived for many generations. One can say many things about culture and its influences on people, but there is no doubt it has the power to influence tastes, binding peoples of different ethnicities, for example, to enjoy similar foods, which is true in my case. Although I was not born in Poland, my father took his tastes with him to Canada, which I enjoyed and now (with my wife) pass on to our children, including the foods that Prof. Jochnowitz mentions: “On the other hand, East European Jews are united with other East Europeans by a taste for rye bread, blintzes and stuffed cabbage—a taste not shared by South European or North African Jews. Furthermore, there is an East European political style, simultaneously sober and passionate, which is shared by Jews and Gentiles. Even if my ancestors were not Poles, they were shaped by their centuries of contact in the same territory.”

by George Jochnowitz

A new Jewish museum has opened in Warsaw. I am reminded of the essay I wrote in 1990, after my first visit to Poland:

My wife and I visited Poland for the first time during the summer of 1990. There were two very different motivations for my trip: the Jewish reason and the Chinese reason. The Jewish reason was the more compelling. My parents were born in what is now Poland, in Galicia. It was Poland when they left, in the 1920s, but it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when they were born. Poland between the First and Second World Wars had had the second largest Jewish population in the world, below that of the United States but above the Soviet Union’s. It was in Poland that Hitler built his major deaths camps, whose victims included aunts, uncles and cousins of mine. Poland is where my ancestors lived for five centuries or so, but today I have no relatives there; it is now merely my ancestral graveyard.

But I shall talk of the Chinese reason first. I lived in Baoding, China, and taught at Hebei University for two different spring semesters, in 1984 and 1989. In May of 1989, the China I worked in was—briefly—a land of hope and happiness. My Chinese reason for wanting to visit Poland was to see the fulfillment of the dream of 1989, a dream that turned into a nightmare on June 4 in China but came true in Poland. Yet the Poland that my wife and I visited didn't look like a dream at all. There was none of the feeling of exhilaration that I felt in Beijing two weeks before the Tiananmen Massacre. Crossing the frontier from Czechoslovakia by train was a real Communist experience, like entering China: there were forms to fill out on which we had to list all the cash and travelers’ checks we were carrying. We were told to save receipts every time we changed money. Polish currency, unlike Chinese money, is now convertible. Yet we still would have to be ready to account for every zloty we wanted to change back when we left the country.

From the train windows, Poland looked as shabby and sloppy as China, but when we got off the train in Cracow, everything looked better. Cracow is old and beautiful. History is alive; the center of town must have looked the same two hundred years ago. Warsaw’s Old Town, destroyed during World War II, was rebuilt to look like the paintings of Canaletto the Younger (Bernardo Belotto, also spelled Bellotto, nephew of the Venetian artist Canaletto), who lived in Warsaw and painted its streetscapes before his death in 1780.

China, despite its 4,000-year history, contains little visible evidence of the age of the country. There are tourist sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City—old and beautiful, to be sure—but not integrated into the life of modern China. Even in a country as young as the United States, there is more evidence of history--more plaques, more preserved and restored buildings and neighborhoods—than in China. Beijing is determinedly modern. Buddhist temples, now partially restored, were vandalized by Red Guards who were following Chairman Mao's order to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking. Could one imagine gangs of young toughs trashing Poland's Catholic churches? Never in a million years.

Dogs. That was the biggest surprise of all, to see Polish people walking their well-fed, well-groomed dogs down the street. It had never occurred to me that citizens in a country just emerging from Communism might own dogs. Nor had I ever expected to see people showing love for their dogs in a country where psiakrew (dog’s blood) is a common expletive. Although there are dogs in the Chinese countryside, it is illegal to own a dog in a Chinese city. I suspect that dogs were outlawed not only because they eat precious food, but because owning a pet is too individualistic, too personal, too much of an example of bourgeois selfishness. Love is not to be squandered on dogs: “Ardently love the country. Ardently love socialism. Ardently love the Party,” said a billboard I saw in China in 1984.

The Poles would have laughed at such propaganda. The Chinese made their own revolution and continue to believe in its dogmas today, despite the fact that they hate the regime that their “Liberation,” as they call it, gave them. The Poles never had a Communist revolution; socialism was forced upon them by the Soviet Union, and they always considered it a foreign doctrine. That is why Poland continued to love its old cities, its religion, and yes, even its tradition of owning and caring for pets.

China has billboards; Poland has graffiti. The billboards, some showing the smiling faces so typical of public art in Communist countries, exhort the Chinese to follow the one-child policy, to oppose bourgeois liberalization, or simply to be careful on their way home from work. The graffiti in Poland were uglier, but showed that Poland is a free country, for better or worse. “We love Reggae. Rasta Rewolution [sic],” was written in English in a Warsaw underpass. “Fuck Army,” also in English, had been stenciled on walls all over Warsaw, not by visiting midshipmen from Annapolis, I assume, but perhaps by anti-military Poles who do not know how to use the definite article in English. “Polska dla Polakow, Zydzi do Izraela” (Poland for the Poles, Jews to Israel) was chalked on a building in Cracow.

Graffiti are not a good indication of popular opinion, since one person can write lots of slogans. Expressions of anti-Semitism are extremely disturbing, but the fact that East European nations are no longer training, hiding or arming terrorists is more significant than the appearance of racist graffiti. Soviet Jews can now fly directly from Warsaw to Israel via LOT Polish Airlines. The establishment of democracy in Eastern Europe will mean, one hopes, that there will be no more protection or hiding of guerrillas like those who launched the deadly attacks on synagogues that have taken place in Paris, Rome, Istanbul, etc.

Because Poland is facing new problems of inflation and unemployment, political controversy now rages over these and other issues. The Solidarity Movement is no longer solid, but has split into fragments whose members give the impression of hating each other more than they ever hated the Communists. It is natural for political opponents to become extremely hostile to each other, and factional strife should not be viewed with alarm. Democracy not only permits disagreement but draws strength from it. Yet at least some Poles fear that strident partisanship indicates the failure of democracy.

The same sort of fragmentation happened to the Chinese Democracy Movement, which never even succeeded in achieving democracy. Despair reigns among those who escaped from China and among their supporters in the Chinese-American and Chinese student communities here. Many complain that the students in China asked for too much and went too fast. The East European experience, however, indicates the opposite. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are free precisely because the people were ready to demand complete freedom and willing to throw the bums out. The democracy they created is tormented by factionalism because that is what democracy is, not because the East Europeans somehow weren’t ready for freedom. When the Chinese realize that the Communist Party serves no purpose whatever, when they are willing to say that truth is more important than Marx, when they are willing to laugh at nonsensical dogma, China too will be free.

My Jewish reason for going to Poland may not be clear to many American Jews, whose ancestors, like mine, came from Poland, but who never had the least desire to go there. My parents, like most Polish Jews, did not consider themselves Polish, although they could both speak Polish; my father, in fact, spoke Polish more fluently than Yiddish. Neither parent would ever have considered speaking Polish to me, though. "Why should an American Jewish child know Polish?" they thought. Little did they know that I would grow up to be a professor of linguistics and would study several languages, including Mandarin Chinese. I would have been grateful for a little Polish, and a better knowledge of Yiddish as well.

I have never doubted that I am ethnically Jewish rather than Polish. There is such a thing as looking Jewish—quite different from looking Polish, despite the obvious fact that Jews from Europe don't look especially similar to Jews from Ethiopia or Kaifeng, China. German Jewish immigrants to New York moved into Jewish neighborhoods like Washington Heights, not German areas like Ridgewood. Polish Jews rarely wound up in Polish sections like Greenpoint, although many of my own relatives on the Jochnowitz side lived there and some still do. Jews worked in the garment industry but not in the coal mines, as some Poles did. Any politician knows that there are Jewish voting patterns. Any college admissions officer knows that it is Jews who are overrepresented. Sociologists have no trouble identifying Jewish patterns of behavior, which differ from Polish patterns.

On the other hand, East European Jews are united with other East Europeans by a taste for rye bread, blintzes and stuffed cabbage—a taste not shared by South European or North African Jews. Furthermore, there is an East European political style, simultaneously sober and passionate, which is shared by Jews and Gentiles. Even if my ancestors were not Poles, they were shaped by their centuries of contact in the same territory.

I found the Prague Spring movement of 1968 extremely affecting. My emotions went beyond a natural identification with a people's need for freedom. Somehow the Czechs were distant relatives. My mother's family had fled to Bohemia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lived there during much of World War I. But that didn't explain it. Rather, there was just something about the political tone of Czechoslovakia that evoked sympathetic vibrations. I felt a similar identification with Poland's Solidarity Movement twelve years later. It was my movement too.

I knew quite well that Poland, between the two world wars, did not succeed in establishing a stable democracy. As in China after the Revolution of 1911, Poland's democratic institutions were attacked by domestic dictators, destroyed by the murderous invasion of the Axis Powers, and replaced after the war by Communist tyranny. More to the point, anti-Semitism was part of Poland's political history. Why should I think of such a place as either congenial or democratic?

There are two reasons. For one thing, the political institutions of the 18th century were hardly ever tried in Eastern Europe. Therefore, there is no disillusion with reason and liberty—no search for a higher reality in drugs, astrology or unfamiliar religions.

For another thing, East European democrats have no illusions about Marx and Marxism. In the United States—and, oddly, in China—even after the events of 1989, articulate thinkers are not unlikely to claim that Marxism has never existed anywhere, that human nature has failed rather than Marx, that the totality of Marx's writings are true even if all the particulars happen to be incorrect. East Europeans know from experience that Marxism is anti-democratic by its very nature; a philosophy that looks forward to the ultimate disappearance of disagreement and conflict of interest cannot logically accept the legitimacy of differing opinions. Westerners are much more likely to split the world between capitalism and socialism, somehow missing the fact the real difference is between freedom and oppression. Consequently, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it is understood that democracy, together with rights and the rule of law, can insure political stability and lead to prosperity. In the West, democracy has been taken for granted ever since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville.

The dark side of East European intolerance remains, but I believe it is less dark than before. The slogan, "Poland for the Poles, Jews to Israel" is anti-Semitic but not anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism had become a central tenet of Communist belief. When Poland renounced Marxist dogma, it abandoned anti-Zionism as well, and established diplomatic relations with Israel. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria—even Albania and Mongolia—have done the same. Wherever the statue of Lenin is torn down Israel has been recognized. Elsewhere, anti-Zionism, the child of anti-Semitism, remains the major threat to the world's Jews. It is no accident that the anti-Semitic riots that took place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in September 1991 included anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian slogans.

Poland's president, Lech Walesa, speaking in New York on March 25, 1991, said he was ashamed of Polish anti-Semitism. He has come a great way, which is both appropriate and natural for the leader of a democratic nation. Democracy is always good for the Jews. It will be good for the Poles as well.

I had no trouble finding the apartment house my grandfather had owned in Cracow, at 49 ulica Dietla. The building was shabby, but the street looked familiar, and not just because my father had described it to me. It resembled a number of old, wide streets in neighborhoods in America that had once been Jewish. It looked like Commonwealth Avenue as it passes through the Brighton section of Boston, or like Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was filled with synagogues, most shut down for the past fifty years, but one was still open, the Remu (Rema) Synagogue, built by Rabbi Moses Isserles in 1553, which my grandfather may have belonged to. It was easy to imagine the area as a Jewish neighborhood, whose residents were neither like Tevye nor like Wanda Landowska, but like me.

It was much harder to think of Jews living in Ropczyce (Ropshits in Yiddish), my mother's town. I knew that the famous Ropshitser rebbe, Naftali Tsvi, had made his home there. I knew that before World War I the town had been about 30% Jewish. But the buildings and the streets didn't look as if Jews had once resided there. What could it have been like?

No one had ever told me how beautiful Galicia is. We rented a car in Cracow and drove the hundred miles to Ropczyce, through hills, fields, woods and pastures, all magnificently green. The towns were shabby and poor, but most of them still attractive, with their old European market squares. The villages, with their log houses, had a distinct rural character of their own, nothing like the towns. Cracow has always been lovely and always been a center of culture. Why is it considered so awful among Jews to be a Galitsyaner?

Ropczyce has two bookstores, which is two more than I would have expected. Cracow has bookstores everywhere. I can't read Polish, but I could recognize Philip Roth's Kompleks Portnoya, Graetz's six-volume History of the Jews and various other books by Jewish authors and on Jewish themes in bookstore windows. I must add that I also saw a book of Jewish jokes, with lots of caricatures of Jews. Anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism coexist. Jewish ghosts remain. Poland, in this respect, is rather different from Austria, whose president is an unrepentant Nazi, but which has forgotten about its Jews. There are living Jews in Vienna, but not very much evidence of the Jewish presence in the city before Hitler.

Eastern Europe, like so much of the world, has been torn by conflicting nationalisms. The former Yugoslavia is one example of how tenacious these hostilities are. In the case of the Jews, nationalistic antagonism was compounded by old religious hatreds. There are still Jews and Poles, not surprisingly, who feel old resentments and believe old stereotypes.

Bulgaria too is a country where the prejudice against the Turkish minority is both ethnic and religious. Yet democratic elections there have given Turks a role in forming a coalition. Similarly, Poland's first elected president since the Communist Party lost its power has said he will fight the “Zionism is racism” resolution of the United Nations. Jewish and Polish interests in the world coincide; both Polish democracy and Jewish security require a world free from fanaticism and totalitarianism.

There has been a great deal of controversy among American Jews concerning the visit of Jozef Cardinal Glemp to the United States in September and October of 1991. The Cardinal condemned anti-Semitism and expressed regrets that a sermon he delivered in August 1989 might have fostered anti-Jewish stereotypes. Yet he refused to retract some of his accusations: that Jews in Poland had spread alcoholism, for example.

There is a Chinese proverb that offers advice on this question: “Don't fear slow progress; just fear no progress” (Bu pa man; jiu pa zhan). Prejudice will not vanish overnight. Democracy cannot change human nature and does not try to. Controversy will exist as long as there is thought. Human beings were not designed to agree with each other. There are problems that can never be solved, and people will always get angry about them. That is precisely why we need democracy.

It makes perfect sense for a democratic Poland to open a museum devoted to Polish Jewish history.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Night At The Operating Theatre


I had never had surgery before; I had never stayed overnight in a hospital before. At least not as an adult; I did stay in an incubator for a month after I was born a month premature, in Montreal, in 1957. This was what my mother had told me. Now, more than five decades later, I was being prepped for surgery, a serious matter. It was Thursday, December 18th, 2012; I had arrived two days prior in emergency at North York General here in Toronto. I was informed I had colon cancer, and they were going to cut me open to remove a tumor. Major surgery, no doubt. I was as mentally prepared for it as one could be for an unknown experience.

The orderly, a stocky middle aged male of middle eastern descent, wheeled me downstairs to within a few feet of the closed doors of the operating rooms, and left without a word. It was about 8 p.m. No one was there; there was a nurse’s station nearby, but it was manned by no one, neither male nor female. I thought they had forgotten about me. After what seemed like a long time, I am not sure how long, a Chinese female anesthesiologist in her thirties, who had a determined look on her face, asked me a number of questions—the same questions that nurses had asked previously that day; she then told me about being “put under” and the procedure involved.

She also added  that I would have to take off my wedding band, since gold was a conductor of electricity and it would pose some hazard: I argued, rather weakly but consistently, that I would rather not and moreover didn't see how a tiny golden band could pose any hazard. She left and and after checking with the surgeon, she agreed that I could keep my gold wedding band on my third finger of my left hand. Small victory, I suppose.

Such are important in a hospital, where all the rights are held by the doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, pharmacist's assistants, nurses, nurses aides, orderlies, administrators, etc. I was there to be a good patient, which means agreeing to all procedures, tests, examinations, which by the time I was in the surgical operating theatre numbered more than the fingers of both of my hands.

The room was bright, bathed in a bright white light—so bright that it hurt my eyes and caused them to squint; a defensive mechanism, no doubt.  I was wheeled to a stainless steel table, which seemed more narrow than I thought would be possible to hold my body, skinny as I am; dutifully, as instructed by the surgeon, I climbed on to the table. Surrounding me was the surgical team, about five persons. Before I knew what was happening, a mask was put on me and I was put under. I remember nothing about the surgery, which lasted more than four hours. I do remember awakening in the recovery room, shivering and cold. I do remember a kind nurse quickly came and offered me warm blankets. It was around 5:30 a.m.; shortly afterward, I was wheeled up to my room.

I looked around, and then at my body, which had a large incision running down the centre of my stomach and chest, stapled to close. I was apparently cut open like a fish. There was no colostomy, which the surgeon had said was a possibility, doing so with all manner of diagrams and speech. Thankful for small miracles. There was all kinds of plastic tubes and lines connected to my body, including a self-administered morphine pump for pain, which the nurse explained the workings of. Yes, I was in pain, but I was also confused and in a new situation wholly familiar to me. To say this was abnormal is to say with a high degree of certainty what was undeniably true.

When I called my wife at about 7 a.m., she said I sounded weak. The doctor had called my wife right after the surgery, at around 1:30 a.m. and said my tumor was the size of an orange. I asked my wife to come, and I quickly fell asleep, not a good sleep, but a fitful sleep aided by the analgesic effects of morphine.

Next week:  Part 2: Nurse, Can I have Some Ice?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hearing A Lot More About Immuno-Oncology, or IO

Cancer Research

Re-inforced T-cells: “T-cells are the immune system's foot soldiers, and by modifying their makeup and capabilities, and then reinjecting cancer patients with souped up T-cells, researchers are finding they can push back and sometimes defeat certain types of cancer that they were powerless against before,” Roland and Ficenec write,
Credit: Fotolia
Source: National Post

An article, by Denise Roland and John Ficenec, in National Post, first published in The Telegraph, looks at the latest advances in cancer therapy; one of the most promising is a field called immuno-oncology (IO), which is a method to help the human body—and in particular our immune system’s T-cells—detect and eliminate cancer cells by giving it more weapons to defeat it; the war metaphor is very apt in describing what it often takes to have victory over cancer.

Denise Roland and John Ficenec write:
IO is set apart from other forms of cancer treatment because it harnesses the body’s natural defences to fight off tumours. The other approaches — chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery — bring in outside weapons, such as powerful drugs, high-energy radiation and scalpels.
IO works by undermining the evasion tactics used by tumours, which can “hide” from the body’s immune system by disguising themselves as normal cells. Some IO treatments work by unmasking tumours, allowing the body’s disease-fighting cells to find and attack them. Others reinforce the immune system’s weaponry in various ways, so that its killer cells can fight off the cancer more powerfully.
David Hafler has spent decades, first at Harvard University and now at Yale, working out how scientists can harness the immune system to fight off disease of all kinds, not just cancer. “The word breakthrough should be taken very seriously, but this is one of just two instances in my life when I would say: this is a breakthrough,” he says.

He calls some of the trial results “mind-blowing,” especially in the treatments that attack a tumour’s stealth tactics. “It’s been absolutely dramatic to watch play out. The cat-and-mouse game that goes on between tumours and the immune system — I didn’t know it was that important. No-one did.”
Such is often the way with research and breakthroughs; it often takes decades of committed and dedicated work by teams of scientists for a breakthrough. So, now is the time when we’ll hear a lot more about IO, which holds a lot of promise and gives hope to those suffering from cancer. It is my view, based on reading many scientific articles on the subject, that scientists and researchers are now only years away from announcing many medical breakthroughs in humanity’s long battle against cancer. It seems that we are now entering the final mile. This is one of the beauties of science, that it not only builds on previous work and discovery, but that it is also self-correcting. As someone who has benefited from recent advances in cancer research, I can attest to the benefits of medical science and medical research that not only increases longevity, which is important, but also quality of life.

For more, go to [NatPost]

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Addresses The Nation: October 22, 2014


This is the full speech that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made last night, addressing the nation, following the terrorist attacks on the nation's capital, Ottawa and on two soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu, Quebec, one of whom succumbed to his injuries: The two soldiers who were killed are Corporal Nathan Cirillo, 24, and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53, a 28-year military veteran. Our whole family, including our two boys, aged 12 and 6, watched this speech; afterward, we discussed it and its implications, including that one of the best ways that average Canadians can defeat terrorism is to not give in to fear, to live our lives in the Canadian tradition. This includes coming together in times of crisis.

My fellow Canadians, for the second time this week there has been a brutal and violent attack on our soil.

Today, our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Corporal Nathan Cirillo of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Corporal Cirillo was killed today - murdered in cold blood - as he provided a ceremonial honour guard at Canada’s national war memorial.

That sacred place that pays tribute to those who gave their lives so that we can live in a free, democratic and safe society.

Likewise, our thoughts and prayers remain also with the family and friends of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who was killed earlier this week by an ISIL-inspired terrorist.

Tonight we also pray for the speedy recovery of the others injured in these despicable attacks.

Fellow Canadians, we have also been reminded today of the compassionate and courageous nature of so many Canadians, like those private citizens and first responders who came to provide aid to Corporal Cirillo as he fought for his life.

And, of course, the members of our security forces in the RCMP, the city of Ottawa police, and in parliament who came quickly, and at great risk to themselves, to assist those of us who were close to the attack.

Fellow Canadians, in the days to come, we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had.

But this week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.

We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and our institutions of governance are, by their very nature, attacks on our country.

On our values, on our society, on us, Canadians, as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.

But let there be no misunderstanding, we will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated.

In fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts and those of our national security agencies, to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats, and keep Canada safe here at home.

Just as it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.

They will have no safe haven.

While today has been, without question, a difficult day, I have every confidence that Canadians will pull together with the kind of firm solidarity that has seen our country through many challenges.

Together, we will remain vigilant against those, at home or abroad, who wish to harm us.

For now, Laureen, Ben, Rachel, and I join all Canadians in praying for those touched by today’s attack.

May God bless them, and keep our land glorious and free.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Case For The Poetic Scientist

Faith in Science

While I am first to admit and agree that science continues to play an important role in our lives, notably in the field of medicine, I can also happily admit that its importance can be over-stated, allowing it to push non-scientific disciplines under the humanities umbrella outside the public eye. It can also create a faith in science, essentially describing scientism, which pushes/forces science to answer questions that it is incapable of answering.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emerita of history at the City University of New York, raises such a point in an excellent article  (“Evolution and Ethics, Revisited”) in The New Atlantis; she writes:
They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.” That is John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University (1852) referring to the sciences of his day, which threatened to dominate and even overwhelm theological education in the university. A science’s teaching might be true in its proper place but fallacious “if it be constituted the sole exponent of all things in heaven and earth, and that, for the simple reason that it is encroaching on territory not its own, and undertaking problems which it has no instruments to solve.”

While Newman’s notion of science was far broader than ours, including even painting and music, his description of the overreach of science is still apt. We now have a term — “scientism” — for that fallacy, exemplified, as has been demonstrated in these pages, by Richard Dawkins’s pronouncement that genes “created us, body and mind,” and Edward O. Wilson’s claim that biology is the “basis of all social behavior.” If scientism has become so prevalent, it is partly because of the emergence of new sciences, each encroaching, as Newman said, on “territory not its own” (invading, we would now say, the turf of others), and each professing to comprehend (in both senses of that word) the whole. Intended as an epithet, the term has been adopted as an honorific by some of its practitioners. A chapter in the book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007) by three philosophers is entitled “In Defense of Scientism.

Newman’s book appeared seven years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which provoked the classic case of scientism — the mutation of Darwinism into social Darwinism. There had been earlier theories of evolution, such as Lamarck’s. And there had been earlier doctrines, most notably Malthus’s, that applied to society the concept of a “struggle for existence.” Indeed, Darwin had been inspired by Malthus, while opposing Lamarck. But it was the Origin that gave credibility to the theory of evolution and, inadvertently, encouraged others to extend it to society, making the “survival of the fittest” the natural and proper basis for human behavior and social relations.

The emergence of social Darwinism recalls the adage of another eminent Victorian. “Ideas,” wrote Lord Acton, “have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Darwin, the unwitting godfather of social Darwinism, disowned even that degree of parentage. He dismissed as ludicrous the charge of one reviewer that he had endorsed “might is right” thereby justifying the idea “that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.” Challenged on another occasion to declare his views on religion, he replied that while the subject of God was “beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” his moral obligation was clear: “man can do his duty.” Averse to controversy in general (even over the Origin itself), Darwin played no public part in the dispute over social Darwinism. That battle was left to Darwin’s “bulldog,” as T. H. Huxley proudly described himself — “my general agent,” Darwin called him. Huxley’s arguments against social Darwinism are all the more telling because they come not, as might have been expected, from a cleric or theologian, but from an eminent scientist and ardent Darwinist.
Perhaps Prof. Himmelfarb is herself overstating her case; yet, I do not think it is so. Social Dawinism in some new mutated form is in the air. Social Darwinism is a by-product of scientism, despite the strenuous and articulate objections of evolutionary scientists who protest that their research is serious science that can answer most, if not all, questions about humanity. A type of bravado that is telling, and says much. Digging deep into a narrow hole will only develop a longer narrow hole; it can also trap you in your own narrow thinking.

Most reasonable people accept the theory of evolution, but not everything that has the title of “evolution” attached to it, including the current work coming out of the fields of biology, psychology and neurology. People might be both fascinated and uncomfortable with some of its prime implications. When science reduces humanity to an accumulation of genes or atoms or similar ideas, it leads to the type of unconscious thinking common among to many evolutionary scientists that we are in a sense “deterministic beings. True, no serious scientist would admit to this, yet it is one of those unsaid things.

It is my view that science, and I have sufficient understanding of it, is important, but it alone cannot answer all of our questions, nor do I think it ought to; for example, there are moral questions that have developed independently of science, and require disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature and other subjects of the humanities to inform us. (A close reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Eliot’s Daniel Deronda might help the scientist better understand the human condition.)

I agree with Prof. Himmelfarb that a little humility might be what scientists today need. And perhaps some poetry: Himmelfarb writes: “This may be too radical a leap for the scientist of our own day — to invoke not only morality but poetry as a corrective to scientism.”

For more, go to [NewAtlantis].

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Taxi Ride Home

Sharp Conversation

There was a time in my life when I was employed as a sales engineer for a medium-sized manufacturing company (high-precision aerospace & defense products); my position required that I travel often for business, and thus I used to take a lot of planes and a lot of taxis. This incident, in many respects unmemorable, took place during the late summer of 1990; I was returning from a business trip from the United States to Montreal, which is where I was then residing. It was late in the evening, and I was exhausted after a long day of meetings and travel

I  took a cab from the airport, and behind the wheel there was a middle-aged driver from the middle east. We spoke, and after some preliminaries of what I did professionally and where I was coming from, the conversation quickly turned personal and to religion, not a topic that I like speaking about with strangers; he spoke passionately about his wife's newly found beliefs in Christianity, which bothered him. “All she talks about is love and peace,” he said with disdain. “She has forgotten about Allah’s justice. In Islam, you have to be sharp like a sword,” he said, momentarily taking his right hand off the steering wheel, and chopping the air for dramatic emphasis.

Thankfully, we arrived at my destination; I quickly paid him. As I was exiting the cab, the driver helping me retrieve my suitcase from the car’s trunk, he said, “This is Islam; it's about justice.” He was not angry, but bothered, perhaps confused about Canada and its values, which in some important way conflicted with his, and his religious beliefs likely provided him some comfort in a land that he considered foreign in so many ways. Yet, he was in Canada for a reason; it provided him something tangible (freedom, opportunity, work, perhaps) not available in his home country.

I soon forgot this conversation, recalling it only recently; and yet this simple taxi driver from the middle east explained an important aspect of Islam that today escapes many sophisticated western academics, politicians and writers. People hold on to thoughts and ideas that give them comfort and meaning, only replacing these with new ones when these do the same. In the workings of the brain, changing one’s mind is never easy. Yet, it is at times necessary, and time and the fading of memory makes this easier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Concert Pianist: Time To Refill

Youthful Ambition

“The paradox is that I love playing in concerts; the paradox is that each concert is an event for me. I can also say that each concert is a stress for me. …I give a lot; I give everything I have at that particular moment during my concert, and so I need some time to refill myself.”
—Evgeny Kissin

In this British documentary series Imagine, host Alan Yentob examines Being a Concert Pianist (2005), using British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as the focus of what young pianists face in their desire to become internationally acclaimed musicians. Having good parents and teachers might be as important as luck, talent and a relentless drive and ambition to play music for the public to enjoy. Such are no doubt important in the early years, but later on, more mature thoughts and ideas take hold. It also takes a sense of what is important, an understanding of the limitations of human ability, and how to preserve it, says Evgeny Kissin, a child prodigy and one of the great pianists of today, who performs in less than 50 concerts a year: “The paradox is that I love playing in concerts; the paradox is that each concert is an event for me. I can also say that each concert is a stress for me. …I give a lot; I give everything I have at that particular moment during my concert, and so I need some time to refill myself.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuclear Life & Death

Man-Made Disasters

A Room in Pripyat, Ukraine: Johnson writes: “And that is what drew me, along with the wonder
of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned
in a rush, left to the devices of nature.”
Photo Credit:
Gerd Ludwig
Source: NatGeo

An article (“Nuclear Tourism”), by George Johnson, in National Geographic discusses the human fascination of Chernobyl, which 28 years ago suffered a nuclear disaster. The name of the town in Ukraine is synonymous with the threats that nuclear reactors in particular, and nuclear energy in all its forms in general,  pose to human civilization. Such threats, not surprisingly, also act as a draw to people, who are fascinated by its serious implications.

Chernobyl has become a tourist attraction, Johnson writes in this essay, with photos by Gerd Ludwig:
Then there is the specter of nuclear meltdown. In 2011, Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, was officially declared a tourist attraction.
Nuclear tourism. Coming around the time of the Fukushima disaster, the idea seems absurd. And that is what drew me, along with the wonder of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned in a rush, left to the devices of nature.

Sixty miles away in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, weeks of bloody demonstrations had led in February to the expulsion of the president and the installation of a new government. In response to the upheaval Russia had occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s eastern border. In a crazy way, Chernobyl felt like the safest place to be.

The other diehards in the van had come for their own reasons. John, a young man from London, was into “extreme tourism.” For his next adventure he had booked a tour of North Korea and was looking into options for bungee jumping from a helicopter. Gavin from Australia and Georg from Vienna were working together on a performance piece about the phenomenon of quarantine. We are used to thinking of sick people quarantined from the general population. Here it was the land itself that was contagious.

Of all my fellow travelers, the most striking was Anna, a quiet young woman from Moscow. She was dressed all in black with fur-lined boots, her long dark hair streaked with a flash of magenta. It reminded me of radioactivity. This was her third time at Chernobyl, and she had just signed up for another five-day tour later in the year.

“I’m drawn to abandoned places that have fallen apart and decayed,” she said. Mostly she loved the silence and the wildlife—this accidental wilderness. On her T-shirt was a picture of a wolf.

“ ‘Radioactive Wolves’?” I asked. It was the name of a documentary I’d seen on PBS’s Nature about Chernobyl. “It’s my favorite film,” she said.
The aftermath of destruction and death is often silence; perhaps visiting such places gives people an idea of what they have escaped, the silence speaking in a particular language. I would like to elucidate this point by telling a personal story. When I was an engineering student, I worked one summer (in 1980) at a nuclear research reactor in Ontario (Chalk River); we also wore dosimeters on our belts to measure our exposure, in millirems, to the background radiation (notably gamma); we all were tested as to our total exposure before we left the facility; we were all told the amount of total radiation we students were exposed to fell within normal limits. I enjoyed my summer there, and I have not thought much about my time at Chalk River until I was diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago; is there a correlation? I can't say with any certainty, but I wonder. More important, I am glad to be alive.

You can read more and see more images at [NatGeo].

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Soul Keeper: Sabina Spielrein

Human Nature

The Soul Keeper (2002); a video clip with Tumbalalaika playing.
Via: Youtube

The Soul Keeper is based on the life of Sabina Spielrein (1885–1942), who, Wikipedia informs us, “was a Russian physician and one of the first female psychoanalysts. She was in succession the patient, then student, then colleague of Carl Gustav Jung.” Spielrein is an unrecognized pioneer in the study of human emotions, notably as they pertain to hidden desires and needs.

The Jewish Women’s Archive says:
Sabina Spielrein was born on November 7, 1885 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, Naphtul Arkadjevitch Spielrein, was a merchant, and her mother, Emilia (Eva) Marcovna Lujublinskaja, was a dentist. Spielrein’s maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both rabbis. Her grandfather educated Spielrein’s mother, who was very intelligent and musical. However, after she became engaged to a Christian, her father arranged the marriage with Spielrein’s father, who was Jewish. It was not a marriage Spielrein’s mother wanted, nor does it appear that she and her husband ever fell in love or enjoyed a satisfying relationship.
The parents, who were extremely strict, forced the children to endure an extremely harsh upbringing: her father tyrannized the household; her mother beat the children severely. Nevertheless, they placed great emphasis on the children’s education, employing a nursemaid, a governess to prepare them for high-school entrance and a music teacher.

Spielrein was a very delicate and sensitive child, subject from infancy to frequent illness. She was also very precocious. While Russian was her first language, by the age of six Spielrein also spoke German and French. Indeed, the entire household communicated in a different language every day of the week, moving between German, French, English and Russian. 
At the age of ten, Spielrein began attending a girls’ grammar school in her hometown, completing her studies with distinction in 1904. She lived at home with her parents, three brothers—Jean, Isaak and Emil—and one sister, Emilia. In addition to her coursework, Spielrein studied piano. At the age of twelve, she started studying Latin and voice. She very much enjoyed natural science courses and decided that the direction in which she wanted to move was medicine. When Spielrein was fifteen, her six-year-old sister died of typhoid. This episode had a dramatic effect on Spielrein.

Spielrein’s mental health “affliction” appeared at age seventeen, although she had been beset with problems throughout her young life. She was taken to Heller Sanatorium, Interlaken, in Switzerland for one month, and was admitted to the Burghölzli Treatment and Care Institution (or Psychiatric Clinic) in Zurich on August 17, 1904. Spielrein became the first patient of Carl Jung, ten years her senior, who treated her until her discharge on June 1, 1905.
The film, an Italian-French-British production starring Emilia Fox as Sabina Spielrein and directed by Roberto Faenza, was released in 2002. Jung’s methods of “treatment” might shock the sensibilities and the held ethics of some today, which is always the case when looking at events from the past. I view it more as a study in history and the trials and tribulations of human relationships; it is my view that some things remain the same, and fall under the realm of universal ideas and emotions: love, sex, pain, play, repression, freedom. 

Speaking of universals, there is another more ominous human trait: death, and in particular murder:  Wikipedia notes: “In August 1942, Spielrein and her two daughters, aged 29 and 16, were murdered by a Nazi German SS Death Squad, Einsatzgruppe D, in Zmievskaya Balka near Rostov-on-Don, together with 27,000 mostly Jewish victims.”

For those interested in surnames, as I am, Spielrein translates into English as spiel; “play”; and rein: “clean.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Remembering Our Family Roots

Familial Bonds

My Father; My Sons: Hannah Senesh writes: “There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”
Photo Credit: Perry J. Greenbaum, 2014

Family is the glue that bonds society and civilizes humans and confers us meaning. We remember so as not to forget. Two important thoughts. Last night, before the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, Jews lit Yizkor (lit: “to remember” in Hebrew) candles to remember those beloved family members no longer present in this world; this happens four times a year. Memory and the ritual of remembering helps to draw those further away closer. This photo encapsulates the values, the virtues if you will, of memory, of nearness and of family. My two beautiful boys at my father's grave-site in Montreal (the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery), which we visited in August. His name is written in Hebrew: Ephraim ben Yaacov.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Silence Of The Lambs: Kristof & Buruma Put Women In Their Place

(Un)Free Speech

“Free speech is never absolute. Even—or perhaps especially in America—where citizens (sic) are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilized person would utter...”
Ian Buruma, about freedom of speech, in a New York Times Op Ed, June 7, 2009

Arrogance combined with both a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge is nothing short of irrational, if not immoral. It often leads to silencing those voices whose experience and knowledge contradict a dearly held conviction. In the view of such arrogant writers—society’s moral arbiters— they alone decide who are the wronged persons, the victims. Others, not on the A list, are never to voice any anger, but accept their fate in silence. It is, as Lorna Salzman says, “the silence of the lambs.”: ‘Let us pause for a moment and ponder this. Kristof and Buruma, rather than empathizing with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s harrowing personal experiences, and those of many dissident, apostate and ex-Muslims who still live anonymously with bodyguards, choose to deplore the “zeal” of these victims rather than the zealous fanaticism and bigotry of their oppressors. Apparently one must bear one’s fate stoically, without emotion, without anger, or else risk feeding “religious bigotry.” ’


by Lorna Salzman

For writers like Nicholas Kristof and Ian Buruma, it would seem that it is perfectly all right to tolerate “overheated” language in talking of social injustice, provided the speaker is an African-American, because we all deplore the slavery and discrimination which this group has suffered, to the point of assuming the guilt of early American settlers long dead. (The descendants of the Arabs who sent black Africans into slavery do not seem to be burdened with such guilt).

I have not actually heard either of these social critics express an opinion on whether African-Americans are entitled to complain about slavery or present-day discrimination. But I daresay they would be extremely cautious. Were they to do so, I doubt they would call these complaints “strident,” “exaggerated,” “overheated and overstated.” I doubt they would tell blacks fighting discrimination to plead their case politely and modestly so as not to get anyone angry....“don’t be an uppity ni--er.”**

But in their rarefied privileged world, a woman of color, namely Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has personally suffered even more than American slaves did, who narrates her history of forced genital mutilation, of forced marriage, of repeated death threats (including from the man who brutally murdered her film collaborator Theo van Gogh), and of a narrow escape from Islamists in Somalia and the Netherlands, is not allowed to utilize equally strong language to describe her own suffering because, they claim, her use of strong language is an incitement to bigotry.

Writer Ian Buruma, in his book Murder in Amsterdam, proclaims that “her strident tone puts people off,” and “there are hints of zealousness, echoes perhaps of her earlier enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood, before she was converted to the ideals of the European Enlightenment.” Even worse, Buruma, by way of quoting other women, manages to insult Ali, regarding an Amsterdam screening of the film Submission (the one she worked on with van Gogh,); four veiled Muslim women claimed the film insulted Islam, denied that women's oppression had anything to do with Islam and told her to stop. Buruma spends a lot of time in his book discrediting Ali and quoting her critics, but nowhere does he express respect or undiluted praise for her courage, conviction and principles.

Then there is Kristof, reviewing Ali’s new book Nomad, in the May 28th edition of the NY Times Book Review. Kristof and his wife authored Half the Sky, about the oppression of women in the undeveloped world. In this review he acknowledges the problems with Islam: repression of women, persecution complexes, lack of democracy, volatility, anti-Semitism (he doesn't mention the stoning or genital mutilation of women in African Muslim countries), and then blithely goes on to rant about Ali’s exaggeration, overstatement, “ferocity” that he finds “strident” (“potentially feeding religious bigotry,”) though he says nothing about Muslim bigotry against non-Muslims). He excoriates her for excoriating Islam, even though he has just listed some of the quite sound reasons for doing so, especially if you have experienced Islamic repression personally. But that counts for nothing in his book, apparently.

Let us pause for a moment and ponder this. Kristof and Buruma, rather than empathizing with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s harrowing personal experiences, and those of many dissident, apostate and ex-Muslims who still live anonymously with bodyguards, choose to deplore the “zeal” of these victims rather than the zealous fanaticism and bigotry of their oppressors. Apparently one must bear one's fate stoically, without emotion, without anger, or else risk feeding “religious bigotry.”

Just what have Kristof and Buruma undergone that would entitled them to speak with moral authority? Nothing whatsoever. Neither of them have suffered under Islam. Neither of them live under death threats.Neither of them have been mutilated. Neither of them have had to submit to arbitrary parental discipline regarding marriage. They are two privileged western males preaching from high and casting judgment on someone who has in fact undergone the most severe tests imaginable in her life and in her beliefs.

This sounds familiar, to those of us who recall the dismal and unprincipled response of most of the western world to the publication of the Danish cartoons about Mohammed. Newspaper, magazine and book publishers declared they did not want to “offend” the sensibilities of Muslims, who were busy rioting across the world over the supposed defamation of Mohammed....and in between were themselves issuing vile declamations and vows of revenge against Jews and infidels, all of which today continue to be broadcast daily on Arab TV networks, in madrassas, and from mosques in the Muslim world.

It would be easy to assume that these attitudes stem from sexism or even professional jealousy. But it has been suggested that there is a insidious form of proprietorship at work. Here we have progressive journalists concerned with social justice and oppression, with strong personal opinions about how such problems should be dealt with.

These opinions are delivered at a distance from such problems, however. True, Kristof and his wife have travelled the world and interviewed poor, uneducated and sick women in many cultures. His New York Times columns on the plight of women in most of the world are compassionate and moving as is the book they wrote together, Half the Sky. Yet for some strange reason, Hirsi Ali—who was once one of these same women and experienced their dire condition firsthand—is not worthy of this same compassion, nor even entitled to speak with ferocity.

Why, you ask? Because Kristof, like many other sequestered social critics, has arrived at his own analysis of how one should deal with oppressed people. Above all, he admonishes, one must not make your oppressors angry! One must not be antagonistic to those who mutilate, repress, beat, enslave or murder, because antagonism will be interpreted by the oppressors as “bigotry.” So what is Kristof’s solution? Education. It is, he says, “the best way to open minds, promote economic development and suppress violence.” Let me suggest that education resonates with much the same timbre as appeasement.

Whose education is he referring to? The women who recoiled from the film Submission and denied that Islam was responsible? The men who beat their wives or behead their daughters for some imaginary transgression against the family honor? The imams, mullahs and clerics who spew hatred against Jews and preach jihad against infidels?

Or, is he suggesting that it is the outspoken women, the oppressed women themselves, the “strident” ones, who need to be taught their place and need to be educated to be polite, well mannered, and...well, submissive? People like Hirsi Ali, for example? People like the African slaves brought to these shores? How about the African-Americans today who can’t find jobs or get promotions? And by whom will they be educated? By the likes of patronizing western liberals?

Usually it is religious leaders who are reluctant to take moral positions. Despite the prevalence of concepts like evil and sin, liberal religious leaders are remarkably non-judgmental when it comes to actually fingering sinners and villains. So it is with people like Kristof and Buruma, who have apparently managed to deplore injustice by not only withholding moral judgments from criminals but by finding fault with their victims.

Such is the extent of their ego and pride that they strive to deprive victims of violence and injustice of their right to point out what they have suffered and who is responsible. Truly, we live in a topsy-turvy world, where accusations against tyrants and tyranny are themselves considered to be transgressions.

**I have taken pains not to use the N-word, even though it is in quotes and intended to be a sarcastic commentary.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal,
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2014. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Schomberg's Sukkah Shames Jewish Community

Taking Liberties

Fabrice Schomberg outside his home in The Hague. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)
Sukkah Matters: Fabrice Schomberg outside his home. Cnaan Liphshiz for The times Of Israel
writes: “ ‘Resistance to my sukkah is not just about building permits,’ said Schomberg, a British-
born artist who has erected a sukkah outside his door for the past three years. ‘There’s a wider
context.’ That context includes three demonstrations this summer, all featuring flags of the ISIS
jihadist group; two included calls to murder Jews. A few dozen people attended each of the rallies.
The city has since banned all demonstrations in Schilderswijk.”

Photo Credit: Cnaan Liphshiz; JTA
Source: Times of Israel
 An article, by in The Times of Israel shows that the putting up of a sukkah (a temporary dwelling erected for eight days  to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot) is considered a provocative act in a Dutch neighbourhood populated chiefly by Muslims, and yet this neighbourhood is in reality part of the Netherlands whose laws ostensibly advocate religious freedoms.

Lipshiz writes:
For the tour guides that lead visitors through the Van Ostade Housing Project, Fabrice Schomberg’s sukkah is one of the few signs of the neighborhood’s Jewish roots.
Built in the 19th century for impoverished Jews, the enclave today is surrounded by the largely Muslim neighborhood of Schilderswijk, an area that the Dutch media have taken to calling the “Sharia Triangle,” referring to Islamic religious law. Fewer than 10 Jewish residents remain and, aside from Schomberg’s sukkah, there are virtually no markers of the area’s Jewish past.

Now even the sukkah’s fate is in doubt. After weeks of negotiation with the city, Schomberg was informed that he could build his sukkah only on condition that he dismantle it by 9 o’clock each night. According to Schomberg, the police had advised the city against allowing a sukkah at all, since it might invite Muslim vandalism.

To Schomberg and his supporters, the city’s reluctance to allow a sukkah in Van Ostade is emblematic of the Dutch approach to the rise of Muslim fundamentalism — urging targeted communities to keep a low profile rather than standing up for individual freedoms. But others fault Schomberg, alleging that he has used religion to stir conflict at the community’s expense.
This scenario surely shows that Jews, in reality, do not have religious freedom in The Netherlands. Moreover, the Jewish community in this nation is not willing to fight to retain such freedoms that their ancestors fought to obtain;
In September, the board of the Jewish Community of The Hague informed Schomberg that he was banned from entering any of the city’s Orthodox synagogues until 2016 because “his behavior has endangered the community.” Schomberg said he was told by the Reform community that he was not welcome there either.
This is what happens when Jews do not protect their interests. It is shameful that the Jewish community in The Hague has capitulated to hate and fear. Mr. Schomberg is asserting his rights and ought to be supported and not castigated for his actions. As for citizens of The Hague, their silence on the matter is disappointing, but not surprising; they capitulated long time ago. Is the policy of zayn styl fashionable once again?

For more, go to [TOI].

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Humans Learn Nothing (Moral) From Ants

Human Civilization
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”
—Book of Proverbs 6:6

Hard-working Ants: “One of 10,000 species of ants, this leaf-cutter ant hauls a leaf more than three times its size back to the nest, ” National Geographic writes.
Photo Credit: Roy Toft
Source: NatGeo

In an article (“Ants are Cool, but Teach Us Nothing”) in BloombergView, E.O. Wilson says that although ants are cool, we can learn nothing from them, at least in terms of informing human morality and finding meaning

Wilson, an American biologist, is a world-leading authority on ants; he writes:
For nearly seven decades, starting in boyhood, I've studied hundreds of kinds of ants around the world, and this qualifies me, I believe, to offer some advice on ways their lives can be applied to ours. I’ll start with the question I’m most often asked: “What can I do about the ants in my kitchen?" My response comes from the heart: Watch your step, be careful of little lives. Ants especially like honey, tuna and cookie crumbs. So put down bits of those on the floor, and watch as the first scout finds the bait and reports back to her colony by laying an odor trail. Then, as a little column follows her out to the food, you will see social behavior so strange it might be on another planet. Think of kitchen ants not as pests or bugs, but as your personal guest superorganism.

Another question I hear a lot is, "What can we learn of moral value from the ants?” Here again I will answer definitively: nothing. Nothing at all can be learned from ants that our species should even consider imitating. For one thing, all working ants are female. Males are bred and appear in the nest only once a year, and then only briefly. They are pitiful creatures with wings, huge eyes, small brains and genitalia that make up a large portion of their rear body segment. They have only one function in life: to inseminate the virgin queens during the nuptial season. They are built to be robot flying sexual missiles. Upon mating or doing their best to mate, they are programmed to die within hours, usually as victims of predators.

Many kinds of ants eat their dead -- and their injured, too. You may have seen ant workers retrieve nestmates that you have mangled or killed underfoot (accidentally, I hope), thinking it battlefield heroism. The purpose, alas, is more sinister.
No doubt, almost everyone at one time or another—including my six-year-old son and the writers of the Book of Proverbs—has marveled at the hard work that ants continually undertake and endure. But dig a little deeper, Wilson says. Mindless hard work and determination toward a collectivist goal, which is what essentially an ant colony is, is anti-human. Individuality and moral responsibility is what is missing in ants, but what is necessary for human civilization. Humans are meant to rebel against such collectivist thinking, no matter how beautiful it might appear from a distance. If anything, ants can show us humans how not to live (and die). Such might be the only morality tale here.

For more, go to [Bloomberg]

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Autumn View From My Balcony

The First Season

Autumn Today: Taken earlier today, a north-western view of autumn in Toronto. It is 11°C (52°F).
Photo: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum, 2014.

Autumn is wonderful, colourful and even breath-taking; and it would be more liked if it did not precede winter, which in these parts can be brutal and tiring. Although I am a native Canadian, I have yet to make peace with Canadian winters. Perhaps it's time that I do.

My favourite season is spring (six more months to its arrival here); and in dedication to it here is a modern poem that I recently discovered on the Jewish Daily Forward site; it is by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub:
Jewish Spring
Winter birds brush our faces in farewell.
Our step quickens as thaw gains force and marches into inevitability.
Flowers, bold in their delicacy,
viewed since time’s beginning,
are seen anew, interpreted afresh.
Everyone sees flowers in a different way, Rinah once said.
Trees spread cover thickly
between the chemical groves below and above,
insisting on their leafy say.
Hands pool the earth, laying the foundation for renewal.
Already we envision stalks bent with bounty.
We breathe these many fragrances, humbled, awed.
But like the gazelle on the savannah,
our eyes are always shielded toward the horizon.
We peruse the headlines and the top stories;
we assess the pitch of the chatter.
Who knows how long this generosity,
how deep this permissibility.
Dogwood blossoms etch our prayer in grace.

Monday, October 6, 2014

'The Jewish Question': No Question About It

Identity Politics

David Nirenberg's Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition: “These tools—such as language, causal logic, religion, mathematics—are indeed powerful, but they are powerful precisely because they reduce complexity to intelligibility by projecting our mental concepts onto the world. One consequence of this is that our recognition of significance is always what some philosophers call ‘theory laden,’ meaning that it is shaped by what our theoretical framework and cognitive tools encourage us to recognize as meaningful. Anti-Judaism, as I have argued throughout this book, is precisely this: a powerful theoretical framework for making sense of the world” (464).
Photo Credit: Perry J. Greenbaum, 2014

In Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, David Nirenberg writes that western culture is steeped in anti-Judaism thought and ideas. One idea that still has some currency in some circles is that Jews ought to convert to another religion in order to better fit in to the societies or nations in which they reside. More than 150 years ago, Karl Marx participated in such discussions, Nirenberg writes:
[His] 1844 writings “On the Jewish Question” and (together with Friedrich Engels) The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism intervened in a heated debate about whether German Jews needed to convert to Christianity in order to be emancipated from their legal disabilities and become citizens (3).
Marx argued, however, that this was the wrong question to ask, and that the most-important question that needed addressing was centred on economic capitalism and money, and, of course, the ownership of private property. Again, Nirenberg, a professor of history at University of Chicago, writes on this very subject:
According to him, conversion would neither emancipate the Jews of Germany nor free Germany of Judaism, because Judaism is not only a religion but also an attitude, an attitude of spiritual slavery and alienation from the world. This alienation is not exclusive to the Jews. Money is the god of Judaism, but it is also the god of every man, no matter what his confessed religion, who alienates the products of his life and his labor for it. So long as money is god, which to say so long as there is private property, neither the emancipation of the Jews, nor the emancipation of society from Judaism can ever be achieved, for Christian society will continue to “produce Judaism out of its own entrails” (3).
Can it be that Europe’s sympathy to radical Islam is a projection of meaning, a desire to rid the world of Judaism— that is, not only the Jewish religion, but also the Jewish belief, thought process and moral system found and developed during the history of Judaism? That the west, which has been greatly influenced by Judaism, in the end has a (secret) desire to rid itself of such critical thinking and moral views? That in a sense this explains the west’s war with itself?  Although one should always be careful to look for easy answers, one should, I think, also not avoid tough questions.

Why are there periods of extreme hatred of the Jews, such as we witnessed recently this summer in Europe? There are many possible answers, but allow me to touch upon only a few. Resentment is one possible answer; so is jealously. Judaism persists and flourishes when it is not expected to, defying predictions of its demise over the centuries. It has influenced western culture. There is also possible jealously that so many Jews dominate so many sectors of human activity.

Equally important, Judaism has contributed so much to humanity’s betterment. It is true, perhaps shockingly true to some, that a people that totals no more than 14 million—0.2 percent of the world’s population— has done so much in the areas of arts, science, medicine, philosophy, political theory, and of course, morality and religion.

There is also the reality that Judaism is a religion that places barriers of separation (most distinctly in its dietary kosher food laws, which are known as Kashrut; and the observance of Shabbat on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, a tradition predating Christianity destination of sabbath on Sunday, what Christians call “the Lord's Day.”) between its adherents and the rest of society. Is this sufficient reason to hate a people?

Of course not, but there is too much support from the western tradition, which makes it easier to judge and despise the Jews for what they are not (“Christians”; “redeemed”; “generous”; “spiritual”), or at least what others think or say they are (Judaizers”; “unregenerate”; “avaricious”; “legalistic”).

Nirenberg writes about Marx:
On the other hand, Marx’s messianic desires (itself quite “Christian”) to present his own revolutionary economic and political project as a liberation of the world from Judaism set sharp limits to the depths of his Jewish question. His writings certainly raised critical consciousness about important subjects like class and labor, but it only tended to reinforce basic conceptions about the role of Judaism in the world—for example, its alignment with money and alienation—and to confirm the sense that in a better world that role would disappear (4).
Messianic Christian desires is the right descriptive term for Marx’s views, which were in the end destructive and contributed little to humanity's betterment. Yet, Marx was following a long list of writers who did not understand the place of the Jews in a non-Jewish (mostly Christian) society (It is noteworthy that Karl Marx's father converted to Lutherism before his son was born, and Karl himself was also baptized into this church). If you read the views and polemics of the early Christian church, you will note that there is one consistency:  much of the early writings were not only a defense of the new religion of Christianity, but also a presentation of it as superior in opposition to Judaism, a much-older and established religion.

To a great degree, the early apologists presented Christianity as not Judaism, but anti-Judaism. Small wonder, then, that Christians use the designation of Old Testament for the Tanakh (תַּנַ"ךְ‎)—the Jewish Bible— implying by its very definition that the new has replaced the old, the new being a superior or better testament or covenant with a new people—the Christians. But if they do, one cannot blame them, since the western canon conspires against thinking otherwise.

I call attention to the following notables from Nirenberg’s long list (book page numbers in parenthesis): Saint Paul, the great evangelist in his epistle to the Romans in the Book of Romans ( pp. 62-65); Justin Martyr, a first-century Christian apologist, in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew (pp 100-104); and Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, in his “On the Jews and their Lies” (pp. 264-268).

Then there is William Shakespeare and his Merchant of Venice (pp. 269-99), a play that no doubt plays to the sympathies of the Christian audience and which in its clearly defined characters displays the superiority of Christianity over Judaism (“the life of the spirit over that of the flesh,” dipping into and reinforcing the thinking of St. Paul). Other later influential writers include Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (pp. 313-318); Benedict de Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise (pp. 327-38); and Immanuel Kant in his Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone (pp. 394-96).  There is also Voltaire, Schopenhauer and Weber, and many, many more.

By Marx’s day, a large body of writing existed; and thus much of continental Europe was deeply mired in such thought. We today know that Marx’s political and economic solutions were wrong, yet his analysis on how Judaism has influenced western thought holds some validity. That Marx thought the emancipation of the Jews from his religion was the ticket to societal acceptance was clearly proved wrong in the Soviet Union, where many Jews placed their faith in the October Revolution; and yet the Jews fared no better, or only marginally so, than before the Revolution. For example, Jews were identified as “Jewish” (Yevrei) on all their internal passports (propiska, пропи́ска), where Jewish was considered an ethnicity, which came with all attendant “disabilities” and suspicions of “bourgeois cosmopolitanism.”

Even so, Marx is still revered, a larger-than-life figure whose influence is felt across college campuses in North America and western Europe. Whether they are cognizant of it, his question has influenced the minds of many political leaders, academics, writers and opinion-makers, who are even today not sure what to make of the Jews. Perhaps, they think or suspect the Jews as being too Jewish. (Nirenberg even mentioned something called “Jewish mathematics.”) Centuries of writings cannot so easily be undone, thoughts quickly changed. It is how many make sense of the world and how meaning is derived. Yet, at the same time society collectively enjoys the many fruits of Jewish intellectual labours and pursuits, and its various practical applications—much of it derived from the very religious thought that has made humanity more humane.

If Jews today act more insular than they did in the past—and I am not saying Jews as a group always do—it might be worth looking for the reasons why this is so, and Nirenberg's book gives us much to think about. It is both understandable and expected that when a people feel threatened, they become more concerned about their safety and about protecting what they love and cherish. This human behaviour is normal, sane and sound.

I will end with a though in Yiddish: Avekforn undz zayn; loz unz lebn als meir ton.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Philosopher In Iranian Prison

Totalitarian States

Ramin Jahanbegloo: “My writings talk only about nonviolent change and reform. My interrogators would say that nonviolent reform is the same thing as a velvet revolution, but for me there is a distinction. How could I convince these men that I was innocent; that what they had interpreted as wrongdoing was merely my wish to see my country do better, to treat its citizens with respect and dignity, to show that reform did not necessitate a complete change of government or a swing toward subservience and the foreign domination we had endured in the past? But there was nothing to say. In their eyes, I was already guilty.”
Photo Credit: Basso Cannarsa, LUZphoto, Redux
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

An article, by Ramin Jahanbegloo, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, gives a first-person account of  the time in 2006 that he spent in an Iranian prison, accused of spying for Israel and the United States. Many of the interrogation methods used by the Iranian regime bring to mind the methods of the Soviet Union, notably during the days when Stalin was its undisputed leader. Both the language and the methods are similar.

Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher, writes in “I am not a spy, I am a philosopher.”
"Why do you have so many Jewish friends, Mr. Jahanbegloo?" my interrogator asked.

"What do you mean? I’ve had many colleagues and acquaintances throughout my years in academe and outside it, and some of them happen to be Jewish."

"Yes, but too many of them are Jewish," he said.

"I have no idea what you mean. I don’t see what their religion or ethnicity has to do with it. As I’ve tried to tell you, we are all scholars. Our job is to educate." I knew what he was going to say next.

"Merely to educate? No, I don’t believe that’s it at all. You claim that you want to educate, but educate whom and for what? Look at this list of your past associates—Isaiah Berlin, George Steiner, Noam Chomsky, and all these others. You think we don’t know who these people are and what they do? They are all dangerous thinkers, and they all have an agenda."

"If you actually read the writings of those men, you’d know how wrong you are," I said, immediately regretting it.

"Oh, so you think you have all the knowledge here? You have all the right interpretations and we know nothing? Watch how you speak to me. If you start to get aggressive with us, believe me, it won’t turn out well for you. We have many other methods to employ."

A dead silence. They hadn’t tortured me physically, but there was nothing to stop them.

"All I was trying to say is that there are different ways of understanding the writings of certain thinkers, and you have chosen to see them in one particular way. If you look at them another way, they may not seem as harmful as you think."

"Who are you to decide what is harmful or not? Have you not written papers in support of the Zionists?"

"Of course not," I replied. "What do you mean?"

"Look at this article here, for example, about your visit to Auschwitz. Do you not realize that in writing this article you have criticized the president’s views and given the Zionists credibility?"

Ahmadinejad was and is a Holocaust denier. The paper I had written spelled out the fact that millions of Jews had been killed by the Nazis, and that the death camp at Auschwitz was a center of inhumanity and cruelty.

"But I never refer in any place to the president and his views. I wrote about a place that I visited and saw with my own eyes, and I wrote about my reaction to it."

"Yes, and in so doing you give ammunition to the Zionists to legitimize their claims and strengthen their grip over those they oppress. Have you ever been to Israel, Mr. Jahanbegloo?" he asked, his tone implying that he already knew the answer.

"I ... when I was a child, yes. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. I remember only the huge grapefruits on the trees."
Having Chomsky on the list of “past associates” presents some irony that was lost to the interrogator.  Nevertheless, Jahanbegloo spent 125 days in Evin Prison in Tehran, and like all such individuals under intense interrogation, he was compelled to “confess” to crimes against the state. As a result of International pressure, however, he was fortunately released. Others are not so fortunate, and Iran’s human-rights record is well-known and well-documented.

For example, in an interview with Faraz Sanei, a researcher, Amy Braunschweiger of Human Rights Watch writes: “Many of Iran’s political prisoners are journalists or bloggers, rights defenders, or minority or religious activists. Some are members of the opposition. Many were simply peaceful protesters–like the ones who hit the streets in 2009 to demonstrate against presidential election results they thought were fraudulent. They are often charged with propaganda or collusion against the state. Together these two charges often result in four- to six-year prison sentences. Other charges we see include “insulting” the supreme leader, president or other government officials–which should never be a crime but is punished in Iran with prison sentences of up to two years.”

Ramin Jahanbegloo is now a professor of political science at York University in Toronto.

For more, go to [ChronHighEd]