Martin Buber

I mentioned in another post that he was a hero of mine. Rather than paraphrase, best to quote from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“In debates following violent riots in 1928 and 29 on whether to arm the Jewish settlers in Palestine Buber represented the pacifist option; in debates on immigration quotas following the 1936 Arab boycott Buber argued for demographic parity rather than trying to achieve a Jewish majority. Finally, as a member of Brit Shalom Buber argued for a bi-national rather than for a Jewish state in Palestine. At any of these stages Buber harboured no illusion about the chances of his political views to sway the majority but he believed that it was important to articulate the moral truth as one saw it rather than hiding one’s true beliefs for the sake of political strategy. Needless to say, this politics of authenticity made him few friends among the members of the Zionist establishment.”

There were I must assume, many outside the Zionist establishment who saw the world as he did. He was a man with a big reputation in Germany before he moved to Palestine in 1938, as an educator, philosopher and religious thinker. He also had a major role in building a Jewish cultural awareness within Zionism, not least by his wonderful Tales of the Hasidim.

Like so many I discovered Buber when I encountered his essay, I and Thou, in my college days. An ‘I-it’ relationship refers to the world of sensation and experience. In an ‘I-thou’ relationship sensation and experience are abandoned, the relationship with the other party is paramount. He called it the dialogic principle, but let’s skip that. For Buber, God was the ultimate relationship, ever-present in human consciousness.

Back in the 60s, I and Thou resonated. Some question it as philosophy but as an instinctive truth it still resonates today.

I’ll end with another quote, which for me makes a connection between Buber the Zionist and the Buber of I and Thou.

(Jews and Arabs must) “develop the land together without one imposing his will on the other. We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just and which is unjust.

“We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honour the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims… We have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form or agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and believe in its future; and seeing that such love and faith are surely present also on the other side, a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of the possible” (quoted in Mendes-Flohr, 1994).

Robin Williams – in memoriam

A brief time-out while I remember Robin Williams. He was Mrs Doubtfire, the voice of the genie in Aladdin, John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society. In the 90s, when my children were small, he was the finest and funniest actor of them all. To mark his passing and in memoriam tonight we watched Mrs Doubtfire. The last word, his last word, in the movie, is ‘goodbye’.

Two quotes I found on the BBC website, both John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets’ Society. I can recall the passion with which he said them.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” –

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Carpe diem – that’s for all our lives.

As for the ‘poetry is cute’ quote: that is, I guess, is for me. It is how I see the world. Summed up in one quote.

Which newspaper to read?

Which paper to read? Does it even matter these days when so much news is online, and we can switch (firewalls permitting) at will, and link to sites and sources around the world.

Let’s assume it does, for some of us anyway.

Compassion and a natural liberal instinct dictate the Guardian but I’m almost too much at home there. I am from Manchester after all. As it’s too easy for the opposite reason to read the Daily Mail: every article makes the hackles rise, apoplexy only just contained.

But I must be objective…

Middle ground, campaigning on key issues … maybe the Independent. Neo-liberal, small state… the Telegraph or Mail. Respectable, establishment, with several fine columnists… The Times.  But The Times is the tame face of Murdoch,  the not so fantastic  Mr Fox.

Social welfare, social justice, yes, we need a big state, and a spending state. And yet, the welfare budget is too big, and benefits can act as a big disincentive to finding work. I accept both arguments. And so…

Read everything, or dip into everything. Try the Huffington Post online. Specialise a little and read Foreign Policy magazine. Go weekly and read the New Statesman, the Spectator or the Economist. Read The Week and be bombarded from every point of view.

Be brave and watch Fox TV. Restore your faith in humanity and watch Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Try out   My true colours show I’m afraid – but don’t dismiss the arguments of the other side. Avoid easy answers. Capitalism and compassion can and must exist side by side.

Follow the middle way, as the Buddha taught.  Wisdom does not inhabit the extremes, it seeks to balance them.

Read often, read widely, read wisely. That is the zenpolitics way.

Israel and Palestine

I’m white, Anglo-Saxon, pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and bitterly opposed to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

I’ve been pro-Israel since I was 8 or 9 years old, and first read of the fight to establish the modern state of Israel. Some of my best friends at school were Jewish, my father’s friends likewise, the finest teachers I ever had (postgraduate work at the Warburg Institute) were Jewish (Aby Warburg was Jewish), my best friend in book publishing was Jewish. The remarkable world of early 20th century Vienna, with Mahler and Freud prominent, was one of the great intellectual and cultural moments in history. My professor at the Warburg, Ernst Gombrich (also a Jew from Vienna), suggested my PhD subject might be the Jewish ghetto in Venice. Visiting Cordoba many years ago and seeing the bust there of Maimonides was a reminder of that remarkable Jewish culture that shared cultural supremacy with Islam back in the 12th century. And I could go on.

As for the bible (the Old Testament as Christians know it), for me it is the most remarkable and inspiring record of any people in history.

Opposing Israel’s relentless attacks on Gaza is not anti-semitism. It is the reverse. I’m passionate about Israel. I wanted to work on a kibbutz when I was in my 20s. But other angry, intolerant and and often fundamentalist forces have taken government in Israel in another direction. There is talk of ‘deligitimising’ the Israeli state. My fear for Israel is that if they continue on their current path that may in many eyes be just what happens.

Talk of double strandards – why oppose Israel when violence elsewhere is as bad or worse – is wide of the mark. Israel was in its early days a society predicated on Western values of tolerance, individual freedom and natural justice. It is its departure from those values, and its massive devaluing of each Palestinian life compared to an Israeli one, which may yet undermine it.

Back in the 1930s there were those who argued that Jew and Arab, already fighting each other at a local level, could still live side by side. I’ll mention Martin Buber, an early hero of mine, in another post. They imagined then a worst-case scenario but could they ever have anticipated the current reality?

America is not united in its support for Israeli actions. Liberal Judaism is more critical, the 18-25 age range opposed, but the old consensus still holds sway, and Hilary Clinton’s loading of blame on to the Palestinians in Gaza doesn’t bode well for sanity in post-Obama American policy.

A two-state solution need not be far away. But there are powerful forces arguing against it, for whom repression is the only answer. How it will work out in time I doubt even if God knows.

The perils of intervention

Just one word this morning – intervention.

When to intervene and when not to? The right (and it’s true, not only the right) would have us intervene in Syria, as we did in Libya, but not, for America at least, in Gaza, where the intervention is already happening, and longstanding. But the USA doesn’t have proxies in other parts of the world. The reverse is true. Intervention couldn’t be by subtle diplomatic means, in the current state of things, so it would again be by bludgeon.

And when did bludgeon last work? Melanie Phillips, way off-beam as so often, describes the West as being ‘rudderless’ and ‘leaderless’, and blames Obama for no longer being prepared to defend Western interests. What are Western interests? Can we win favour by more violence? Can we import democracy into countries unwilling to accept it, and unable to define it as we do? Even Turkey – what of Turkish democracy reinterpreted by Erdogan?

What chance intervention working had it happened in Syria in 2011? Fragmentation and violence as is now the fate of Libya would have been the likely outcome. The same result as non-intervention. But that’s another story, and I wouldn’t want to oversimplify it by anything I write here.

As for intervening by way of wider sanctions in Ukraine, they have a poor history. When applied against Saddam Hussein they were riddled with holes. Against Iran in recent years they have put big pressure on the economy, and arguably had an impact. But Russia isn’t Iraq or Iran, and Putin knows it. He’s recently been, after the shooting down of MH17, in Latin America, signing deals. Likewise recently (before MH17 ) with the Chinese. The Russian economy may suffer from sanctions the West imposes but he has too many friends elsewhere for sanctions to have a chance of bringing him down, or even changing his policy.

I’m not opposed to sanctions per se, but I doubt the efficacy of further sanctions. They will polarise, drive both sides further part, they will not advance a solution.

Charles Krauthammer (National Review), in the context of Ukraine: ‘History doesn’t act autonomously. It needs agency.’ Responsible leaders, he argues, have a duty to try and shorten the time span of dictators. ‘History inevitably sees to the defeat of their [the dictators’] malign policies.’ But does it, and if it does, what replaces them? Misplaced agency is a fool’s errand. Follow Krauthammer and you’ll follow more of such errands.

Obama is playing a longer and wiser and braver game. It requires patience, and a determination to work with local people, local agencies, local parties. Think Pakistan, where we can all understand American policy toward the Pakistani Taliban, but the great majority of Pakistanis view America as the great satan. World opinion outside of the West is weighted against America. Obama is trying to readjust that balance. It will be a long game, and there are and will be shrill and foolish voices crying against it.

The appalling violence of the jihadists in northern Iraq is a mighty challenge to that policy. Stopping that violence is a necessary intervention, and it could have come sooner. But, beyond that, Obama’s aim is to work with and support the Iraqi and Kurdish goverments and military.  Reclaiming territory must be handled by local and not American forces.

Where we might intervene, and with success, is in Gaza. Intervention would be to stop violence, engineer peace, seek a two-state solution, but with Israel a proxy for the USA, what chance is there of that?






‘Not some sort of illuminati lizard creature’

… this being what, in Russell Brand’s view, Barrack Obama is not. But it is, in his view, how Judge Jeanine on Fox News would have us perceive him.

Russell Brand lost my vote when he ranted on about democracy in his TV discussion with Jeremy Paxman, but he’s clawed back my favour with his online TV show, The Trews, to which my kids (very grown-up kids) have alerted me.

Check out ‘Is Fox News More Dangerous Than Isis’ on YouTube. His interlocutions are brilliant. He sums up: ‘That attitude [Fox News] is more dangerous than ISIS.’

He feels a little sorry for Obama and the flak he’s receiving, and that’s where the crazy ‘not some sort of illuminati lizard creature’ comment comes in.

We need Russell Brand, as we need Jon Stewart.

The Wonder of Life

I am amazed by what evolutionary biology has achieved in recent years and the avenues of exploration and explanation it’s opened up. And yet… where does life as we experience it fit in?

Richard Dawkin’s vituperative response (Prospect, in 2012) to EO Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth made for stimulating reading – as far as I could understand it! The comments of Professor Georgy Koentges of Warwick University were helpful:

‘Like other scientists commenting on this “tit-for-tat” dispute between Wilson and Dawkins, Koentges also detects the old struggle between those who focus purely on the gene and those who see it as “an anthropological insult to our own feeling of self-belief”.’

This summed up neatly what I’ve been trying and failing to find the words for. Whatever evolutionary biology may demonstrate about the origins of life and the triumph of the selfish gene (whether at the level of individual selection, as Dawkins, or multi-level, as Wilson) it can’t explain or encompass that sense of self, or self-belief, or the breadth of human accomplishment, defying any easy genetic explanation (though they do try), and beyond that, any sense of the simple wonder of life.

The scientific and the spiritual are, for me, two separate dimensions – and yet seamless. And that is a source for joy and wonder in itself.