Friday, 22 March 2019

What's the Point of a Democracy

It’s sometimes hard to value being in a democracy.

Suppose you live in a country that had an election and a referendum and the results didn’t come out the way you wanted. Or maybe the decision in the referendum came out the way you wanted, but not enough MPs were prepared to vote your preferred option through.
Suppose you living in a country where the democratically elected Parliament is stuck. And the democratically elected leaders of society were struggling to … lead.
It’s sometimes hard to value being in a democracy. The political theorist David Runciman coined the phrase, ‘dictator envy.’ It’s very easy to want to have a dictator who can simply get things done without all the messing around having to have a complicated constitution balance of powers.
I think it’s OK to be wary of the importance of living in democracy. After all, to be Jew has to mean not caring too much about being in the majority. I mean, I know there are more Christians than Jews, and more Muslims and Jews and more … well just about everything. But being a Jew means that doesn’t worry me too much. Actually being a Jew means I feel something else about the exercise of the power of the many. You say to me, ‘exercise of the power of the many’ and I start to get a little nervous. My mind’s eye flickers with images of mass-gatherings of fascists all chanting together and murdering my ancestors.
Rabbinic Judaism has a different way of thinking about how society should be run. To the mind of the Rabbis society should be run by wise, compassionate, caring and learned leaders who dedicate their life to leading their community. Yup, Rabbis thought that society should be run by … rabbis. But here’s the problem with this Greek idea of having wise, compassionate, caring and learned leaders running a society – it may well be that they are wise and compassionate when you appoint them, but give ‘em a couple of years in power and there’s a pretty good chance they will become corrupted and despotic and … well we’ve all seen that happen. It can even happen to rabbis. At least, and this is the remarkable thing, the Rabbis were smart enough to mistrust their own belief that rabbis should be in power.
One of the remarkable things about the great Rabbinic collection of law, the Talmud, is how often it records great Rabbinic leaders getting things wrong. There’s a story about the great Rabbinic leader Rabban Gamliel who used his position of power to embarrass Rabbi Yehoshua. He gets deposed. And that story gets carefully recorded and then passed down through almost two thousand years, so we don’t forget how easily power corrupts. The Talmud is much more interested in the control of power, and the prevention of the abuse of power than it is in ensuring that the majority get their way.
Just one other example; elsewhere in the Talmud again recorded 1500 years ago and faithfully handed down through the years is an extended debate on exactly what might count as a bribe, the sort of thing that should make a Rabbi recuse themselves from hearing a legal case. Abba Arika, we learn, refused to hear a case involving the innkeeper of an inn in which he stayed. Mar Shmuel refused to hear a case involving someone who once gave him a hand getting off a ship. The Talmud records Raba asking, "Why is it forbidden to take a bribe to free the innocent?" and he answers the question himself, "As soon as one accepts a bribe, he inclines to favour the donor and considers himself 'one with him'; and no one will find themselves guilty."[1]
I want to suggest this as a way of thinking about democracies; democracies exist to control the reach of those with power, not to ensure that those in the majority get their way.
For me, to care about being part of a democracy means to care about the exercise of power. I want to live in a society where once every so many years you have a chance to vote and kick out people who haven’t delivered on their promises. I want to live in a society where there is a balance of power between the executive and the legislature and the judiciary. So no-one can over-reach, so despotism and fascism can be controlled. I care more about the rule of law than the rule of the majority – just because they are the majority.
And part of the reason I care about the control and the limitations that democracies place on the exercise of power is that I worry about the people who can get crushed underfoot if the powerful get their way just because they are a majority. As the Bible says time and time again, watch out for the orphan, the widow and the stranger – just because they don’t have power, you should not mistreat them. But it’s not just about my being soft-hearted. I care about control the power of the majority because I believe the contributions of the minority are vitally important in our society. I don’t hear enough people saying this. We need minorities in our society if we want to grow and discover.
If the most important thing in a society is being part of the majority, then everyone will tend towards one position. If the most important thing is being part of the majority everyone will wear the same clothes, read the same books, think the same ideas and we’ll stop growing. It takes people to be different to find out new things. It takes different opinions to learn. It takes outsiders to come up with ideas that insiders are never going to find. That, of course, has been the great contribution of the Jewish people to thousands of years of cultures across the world. Like Mordechai who sat at the gates of the city, we’ve specialised in seeing things not everyone else could see and doing things not everyone else could do. We’ve specialised in being different. And we’ve helped. Not that we’ve been the only people doing things differently everyone who has ever done things differently has helped, precisely by their being different.
Because the choice about the kind of society we want to live in comes down to a choice set out by the philosopher Theodore Zeldin in his book The Hidden Pleasures of Life, and it’s something I’ve spoken about before from this pulpit. Do we want to live in a fort or a port.
In a fort we build the tallest walls we can to keep out the outsiders who are a threat, and any breach of these walls is a threat we need to repulse. But in a port we need maximum movement across our borders to bring in what is new, and to send forth that which needs to be shared. And for those of us who want to live in port – and I certainly do – that means having to shoulder the frustrations of not being able to hide big thick walls. And for those of us who care about protecting and celebrating the different insights and different natures of all human beings, that means fighting hard for the values of a democracy, even one that occasionally gets things wrong, and always takes more time than a fascist.
Because the truth about those societies that are built like forts and led by fascists is that despite their surface appeal, those walls will come tumbling down causing more wreckage that anyone could imagine. Meanwhile the open, careful, flexible societies have a chance, just a chance mind you – of surviving and thriving.
Jeremiah’s prophecy was true;
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. … And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.[2]
Or as Rabbi Hananya the Deputy High Priest taught in our oldest Rabbinic collection of teachings, Pirkei Avot, ‘Pray for the welfare of the Kingdom, for were it not for the fear of it, a man would swallow his neighbour alive.’[3]

[1] Ketubot 105b
[2] Jeremiah 29:4-7
[3] 3.2

Monday, 18 March 2019

In the Aftermath of the Attacks on the Al-Noor and Linwood Mosques

I’ve just left Regents Park Mosque where I had the honour of representing New London and Masorti Judaism at a remarkable commemoration in the aftermath of the appalling attacks in Christchurch last Friday.

Present were politicians including Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, religious leaders including Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, Senior Rabbi of the Reform Movement, Laura Janner-Klausner, and representatives of other faith groups and organisations committed to the furtherance of civic society. The leadership of Rabbi Mirvis was especially noted. He had been the first faith leader to confirm his attendance which was acknowledged as proving pivotal in allowing such a high-level gathering to take place.

All shared their horror at the attacks, clearly motivated by Islamophobia, and their particular horror that these attacks targeted religious centres – sanctuaries. Prayers for the comfort of the mourners and the safe rest of the souls of the departed were shared and calls were made for all, faith leaders and politicians included, to take particular care in using language which could inflame false dichotomies in our society.

I found it a particularly moving gathering. It was moving to hear the Mosque’s director, Dr Ahmad Al-Dubayan, draw connections between the dangers of antisemitism and Islamophobia. The thread of hatred that connects the attacks on Finsbury Park Mosque, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques was sketched out by several. I was touched by the pride, anger and pain a younger speaker took in her identity as a British Muslim, ‘how much more integrated could I be?’ – as asked she retold an experience of being told she ought to remove her headscarf if she wanted to be seen as British.

It was inspiring, in such a room of diversity, to be reminded of the strengths that diversity brings; indeed to hear this from a Muslim Mayor and a Muslim Secretary of State.

We are stronger when we stand together in our difference. We are stronger because we care. We demonstrate that strength by refusing to turn our society into a battlefield between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ We are stronger when we chose to love our neighbour, no matter who our neighbour is.

Monday, 11 March 2019

On the Sacred and the Material

Here’s a nice problem. 

Supposed you were married, or engaged – it doesn’t matter – and you had a ring. And suppose that one of those cognitive psychologist types invites you into a room for an experiment. There, in the room, is a jeweller, and the jeweller looks at the ring and says, ‘yup, I can make a copy of this ring so perfect that you wouldn’t be able to tell the two apart.’
Then the psychologist leans forwards and says, ‘tell you what, I’ll give you a $1,000 to leave your ring here, so our jeweller can make a copy, and next week you come back and you get to pick which of the two rings you want to take home.’

It turns out that none of the people in the experiment took the money. Actually, that’s not quite true. One person took the money. They were getting divorced.

The cognitive psychologist behind the experiment was a Professor by the name of Scott Atran. And the thing Atranwas interested in, from a cognitive psychologist perspective,was the sacred. 
Something is sacred when we value it above its value as a purely material good. So, for example, a ring we value more highly than the value of its bits of gold and diamond is sacred. If it’s really sacred, we can’t be offered money to get over it.

I caught an interview with Atran on a BBC radio programme[1] and I’ve been thinking about how we value the sacred and how we can get along when the things that I might value as sacred are not the same as the things you might value as sacred.

Another piece of research from Professor Atran. Atran went to Iran and met people for whom Iran’s nuclear weapon programme was sacred. That meant they didn’t care for any kind of economic incentive to give up on a nuclear weapon programme. They didn’t care that pursuing a nuclear weapon programme would result in all kinds of economic sanctions.[2] In fact for these people, these Iranians for whom Iran getting a nuclear weapon was a sacred value, it turns out that the more you try and bribe or blackmail them with material incentives or sanctions, the less likely they are to do the thing you might want them to do – that is give up on developing a nuclear weapon programme. If you are interested in Iran NOT getting a nuclear weapon, this ought to be important research for you.
In fact, Atran seems to enjoy getting stuck into some of the most important and most difficult challenges of our time. He went to Israel and met with senior Israeli politicians who have been very clear that don’t want to see the creation of a Palestinian State, and then went to Palestine and Syria and met with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, terrorist organisations committed to the destruction of Israel, and asked them what material goods would help them give up on their positions on Israel and Palestine … well you can probably guess how that one turned out. According to Atran, the more you offer to pay a leader of Hamas or Islamic Jihad to give up on their desire to send suicide bombers into Israel, the more convinced they become that suicide bombers are indeed a justifiable thing to do. Atran found similar firmness at play among the Israelis – not that that there are any Israeli politicians who advocate suicide bombs, but that you can’t offer material inducement to an Israeli politician and induce them to give up on having Jerusalem as the unified capital of Israel or the like. That won’t be a surprise to anyone who has spent any time following Israeli politics. But, and this is where the good news starts, there is another way forward.

It turns out that if someone is offered a meaningful symbolic gesture, which seeks to show an understanding of the other side, their attitude toward even their own sacred values can melt, a little. If you seek to express an empathy with another person over something that they deem sacred, they do become less antagonistic. And that goes for the political leaders of Israel and even, according to Atran, the leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

I don’t mean to sound overly fluffy about this. It’s going to take a lot more than a one-off gesture of understanding to solve a multi-generational conflict that has claimed too, too many lives. But if we care about some of the most complex, important and deadly challenges facing us we need to think a lot more carefully about sacred values, and less about material values.

I’ve been reading the most remarkable book – Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First, The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. It’s some book. I mean, it makes James Bond and John le Carre look like In the Night Garden. Throughout the 70 years the book covers, the basic idea that drives the decisions made by Mossad and the rest of the Israeli Secret Service is that anyone who wishes Israel ill should know that Mossad can get them, and will get them. The basic idea is that anyone who wishes Israel ill should be too scared to do anything about it for the material reason that they will end up getting killed. And Israel has been pretty good at implementing that basic idea. But it’s not at all clear that this material balancing act is how prospective terrorists approach these decisions.

At the climax of this extraordinary book, Bergman tells the story of the end of the career of Israel’s greatest spy-master-  the King of Shadows – Meir Dagan himself. Dagan spent 30 years in the Mossad, the last ten as its director and, having read the book, I now know the sorts of things that Dagan did and arranged to have done. Dagan was not fluffy. No-one would ever make the mistake of thinking Dagan was fluffy. But at the end of his life, Dagan changed what he thought Israel should do about those people who wished Israel ill. He came to believe that the basic idea of material threat hadn’t made a difference in 70 years, and wasn’t going to make a difference into the future. At a mass rally before the March 2015 Israeli elections, he challenged the political leadership of Israel to, and I’ll use the language of this sermon, not Dagan’s speech, to treat the challenge of the Palestinians and the Iranians and the rest of them as a problem of sacred values, not material values, and, Dagan argued at the end of his life, sacred values need a very different kind of leadership from that which characterised Dagan’s Mossad.

Enough politics, let me talk more about religion. Because while not all sacred values are religious values – religion can never has violence as a value – all religious values are sacred. To be religious means to value that which cannot be measured, to believe in that which cannot be witnessed. And contrary to the professional God-bashers who think that religion is the root of all evil in the world, my take on this issue is that religion is the best place to go to understand how our sacred values are laid down and how they are shaped and changed. It’s not about the claim that my religion is better or worse than anyone else’s religion, it’s that being a religious leader involves the continual engagement with sacred values.

I’m not an expert on any religion other than my own, let me take just one example from my own faith.

In the time of the Mishnah – that’s around a 1,000 years later there is a story – two people come before the judge each holding on to one corner of a piece of cloth. One person says, ‘I found it and it’s all mine, and the other person says, I found it and it’s all mine.’ And the judge comes up with this solution to the challenge – you get each person to say that not less than half of the cloth is theirs, then you cut up the cloth and each get half.[3]

What interests me is the insistence that both parties have to say that not less than half the cloth is theirs, when just a few moments previously, they had been claiming that all the cloth was theirs. It’s not that the claimants are being told to say something they don’t believe – if they believe that the cloth is all theirs then it’s true that not less than half of it is theirs. They are being softened in their claim, they are being offered a way to be content with less than they claimed. Their implacability is being softened. They are being drawn away from a sacred class and once the decision is merely a material clash – it can be solved.

I could have taken thousands of examples. Rabbinic Judaism is entirely pre-occupied with the nature of competing disputes and claims. The entire Talmud is a collection of tens of thousands of arguments carefully stacked up and considered and recognised. It’s the recognition that is the really remarkable thing. It rarely happens that a Talmudic argument ends with one person being told they are wrong and another being told they are right. Rather the Talmud, on page after page, after page, recognises competing values and softens implacable oppositions until a way to go forward peaceably can be found. Religious debate – at least in Judaism - becomes a way of allowing different people to hold onto different opinions, different sacred values, without feeling the need to fight about it.
Now I know there are bigots who use religion to prop up their bigotry, but I refuse to believe that what I know to be true about Judaism isn’t equally true about other religions. After all we all believe in a God, or gods who are more important than all our claims. That should place a person in a position of humility, not arrogance. Indeed that has been the case with the extraordinary contributions of religious leaders towards such peace-positive developments that have occurred in countries a diverse as South Africa and Ireland.

So here’s the message, whether you find yourself facing a dispute that is large or small, personal or international; watch out for the difference between a sacred value and a material one. We can’t solve clashes of sacred values with material solutions – it will only make things worse. Rather we need to look for ways to recognise the sacred values of the other, and seek out ways to respect and recognise and in that way minimise sacred difference.

And if you want to learn how to do that. Keep coming to Shul. This Shul preferably.

One last thing – if you are interested in this cognitive thing, one of our resident neuroscientists at the Shul (that’s a good phrase right?) and I are talking about Judaism in the brain at a special Friday night dinner next week. You can get a flier at the back of the Shul or book on-line after Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Go on My Mind, Episode One, available on BBC Sounds.
[3] BM 1:1
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...