Column for Jewish News June 5 2015
Almost too much news this week: Jeffrey Spector, FIFA, Tony Blair, George Galloway, the Chief Rabbi, a Charedi ban on women drivers and the looming neo-Nazi demonstration in Golders Green.
At first glance, none of these stories has anything in common except their very notoriety in the public eye. In fact, each does have something in common, I would argue, and that is the issue of choice.
Poor Jeffrey Spector, in whose shoes none of us would willingly walk, made a choice and took himself off to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland, to swallow a lethal cocktail of drugs before the tumour that threatened his death took over his life.
The delegates of FIFA, world football’s governing body, made a choice and re-elected Sepp Blatter as its president, despite the endless rumours of corruption and kickbacks and last week’s dramatic FBI raid in Switzerland and the arrest of FIFA executives. Even to someone like me, who doesn’t follow football, the story was gripping; Jack Warner, the FIFA vice president who has blamed Zionism for his present woes, running through Zurich airport and telling reporter Andrew Jennings that he would not “dignify my spit” in order to spit on him.
And Palestinian football chief Jibril Rajoub made a choice, stepping back from the brink of his motion to expel Israel from FIFA. He even shook hands with Israel’s Ofer Eini, an action that has caused him grief from Hamas, which appears not to understand the politics of rationalism and compromise.
More choice from Tony Blair, who finally bowed to the inevitable and stood down as the Quartet’s Middle East peace envoy, probably because he understood that the narrow restrictions of the job did not allow him to achieve very much. But Blair, whose heart, I think, is in the right place, has chosen to stay engaged with the region, saying he will try to act as an honest broker in an unofficial capacity. He didn’t need to say so: he could have stepped away. But he chose not to.
On to the people’s non-choice, George Galloway. Fresh from his humiliating defeat in Bradford at the General Election, Galloway has decided to throw his ever-present hat in the ring by standing for London Mayor in 2016. I’d like him to explain to me, line by line, how he thinks he’s going to represent my interests. I would also like to be a fly on the wall when he comes to speak at hustings in north west London. But let’s not be too smug about this: he probably has many votes in the bag from Tower Hamlets, despite the dramatic fall of ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman. Just the same, I’d like to make a bet which is more of a racing certainty: Galloway will not be the choice of the London Jewish community.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis also made a choice when he announced a compulsory seminar for his rabbis on the implications of sex abuse in the wake of the Todros Grynhaus conviction. It’s almost shocking to realise what a brave move this was by the Chief Rabbi, noting “we are no less vulnerable to the scourge of sexual crimes than any other community”. He could, like many other rabbonim, have stayed silent and pretended that nothing had happened. But he chose to speak out. It’s perhaps sad he had to make this seminar mandatory. But here we have a Chief Rabbi who is clearly putting his foot down, and we should all welcome it.
And so, inevitably, to the two hot topics round many a Friday night table: the Belz Chasidim ban on women drivers, and the threat to expel children whose mothers drive them to the community’s two schools; and the ever-closer prospect of chaos in Golders Green if the proposed neo-Nazi demonstration is allowed to go ahead in July.
It is perfectly true that living in the Belz community is, for many, a matter of choice. But surely that is a choice for the adults. The poor children who will suffer as a result of the rabbinical edict on women drivers have no choice in the matter. It is appalling, though to be expected, that outraged Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has ordered an inquiry into the situation. Many of us who are not members of the Belz community are likely to have cringed at the unavoidable pictures of black-hatted Charedi families, accompanying national print and TV reports. We’re not like that, we comfort ourselves.
But for the repellent fascists behind the July demonstration, we’re all like that. Someone sent me a post from the organisers’ website this week and what they think about Jews, in the 21st century, made me nearly physically sick. Should Home Secretary Theresa May not choose to exercise her power as home secretary to ban this demonstration, then I think, Shabbat or not, we all have a choice to make come 4 July. Stepping up and speaking out, that’s the only choice.