Royal Baby, Royal Motherhood? (The Forward)

He’s not yet two days old, only weighs 3.8 kg and doesn’t even have a name. Yet Baby Cambridge, third in line to the throne and pronounced beautiful by his doctor, is currently occupying the world’s attention. Kate, it seems, has done her job.

Throughout British royal history, the existence of the heir and the spare has been of the utmost importance. Queen Victoria may have presided over the industrial revolution, but she was also celebrated for being a mother of nine. Henry VIII divorced and beheaded two wives and divided the church all because he wanted a wife to give birth to a son. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I’s failure to marry and procreate plunged the political classes into crisis mode.

But whereas once the lack of an obvious heir put the country’s future stability at risk, that’s hardly the case today. The Queen is head of state, but her duties are ceremonial; uncertainty about the next monarch would not send the markets into a spasm. Theoretically, had William chosen to stay celibate, it wouldn’t have mattered (except to legions of wannabe-princesses): The royal line would have gone in another direction, but the U.K. would have been just fine. But that’s only in theory. We all know that had Kate not done what every pundit and gossip magazine had demanded since the first slice of wedding cake was snaffled — had a child, stat — she would have been seized on as a failure, not quite guilty of treason, but not far short.

Regardless of her being an educated, not noticeably imbecilic graduate in a time of female leaders and businesswomen, and despite the overriding view that women can achieve the same as men (possibly provided that they “lean in”), all along it has been about Kate becoming a mother.

To the public, her entire purpose up until now has been to produce the heir (and then the spare). Going forwards, her only concern is to raise him in a fitting manner. If he is an inquisitive child, she will be praised; if he follows in his uncle Harry’s footsteps and is one day photographed in Nazi uniform or in the buff, you can be sure it’ll be her fault.

It’d be ridiculous to criticize Kate for conforming to expectation — she may have been required to have a baby, but I can’t imagine she sees it as a negative. Nevertheless, the nature of the coverage — the focus almost singularly on Kate rather than William in the past nine months; the media surrounding the hospital for days; the number of live Royal Baby blogs — signifies the continued centrality of motherhood in public life.

And it’s true of Jewish life, too, a matrilineal religion where motherhood is often held up as the holy grail of Jewish womanhood. In the strictly Orthodox community, it’s pretty much the only expectation, but even in less devout Jewish circles where we emphasize academic and professional success, we rarely do so at the expense of motherhood.

For all that, it takes two to tango. As newlywed Jewish women will testify, they, not their new husbands, bear the brunt of questioning about when they will start a family. If not wanting children is seen as unusual for a woman in the wider world, in the community it is generally viewed as an aberration. How many jokes have the Jewish mother as a punchline? Can you think of any that riff on the Jewish father?

And yes, communal life is arranged around the domestic, which historically was the preserve of the Jewish woman. But it goes deeper: Biblically, women may have been strong role models, but they were often depicted through the prism of motherhood, not least Sarah, who allowed Abraham to take another partner because she herself has failed to reproduce. The megillah Ruth ends with us learning she has given birth to the line of the future King David. As for Hannah, mother to Samuel, I remember learning about her in Hebrew classes, my teachers clearly implying that childlessness was the worst fate that could befall a Jewish woman.

Obviously, much like hereditary royalty, Judaism will survive only by its members producing the next generation of “the firm” — and women are kind of crucial to that. The madness surrounding Kate’s pregnancy is — maybe for ardent royalists — survivalist; in Judaism we obsess about motherhood because we care about the fate of our people.

Still, is this elevation of motherhood — because it is motherhood specifically, not parenthood — a necessary part of that? Is it healthy, in 2013, when women can achieve in any area, to place quite so much emphasis on whether they will fulfill their duty to give birth? And, at least in the Jewish community, will we ever view producing the next generation as quite the joint responsibility it is?

Even as we strive to declare Judaism’s modern, forward-looking credentials, when it comes to maternity we are really no different than the overexcited crowds around Buckingham Palace, waiting for our women to do her duty. Perhaps we haven’t changed since biblical times as much as we’d like to think.

This post was originally published by The Forward. Read the original here


My week in writing

I started the week with a blog post responding to Justin Bieber’s questionably appropriate message in the Anne Frank House guestbook, arguing that while not necessarily tasteful, it could be utilised in a positive way.

Back on rather more serious matters, I covered the once-a-decade announcement of the Granta young writers list, interviewing five of those who were honoured and discussing whether we were seeing a revival in the Anglo-Jewish literary scene. Staying with literature, I wrote about AM Homes making the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the writers who were named as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in America.

I spoke to an artist about how his grandfather;s immigrant experience had prompted a sculpture of an upside-down-alien (now on display in London) and covered the annual Rich List, which marked its 25th birthday this year.

In domestic communal news, I reported on Laura Janner-Klausner’s decision to turn down an invitation to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and heard from her why she felt it appropriate, and looked back in the archives at how the community marked Winston Churchill’s death.

Over in the comment section, I was pleased to commission a piece marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and looking at the wider history of resistance, which was illustrated with a breathtaking rare photograph from inside the ghetto.

Justin Bieber and Anne Frank: Why the fuss? (The JC)

Dear Kitty (as Anne Frank never wrote),

“I’m soo sick of being stuck in hiding, because my dad keeps telling me to turn down the volume on my Justin Bieber CD. If only I could get out to go and see him on tour…”

Clearly, Anne– the teenage diarist forced into hiding by the Nazis, who eventually died at Bergen Belsen – had more serious considerations than the average 21st century western teenager. In her diary, perhaps one of the most well-known examples of Holocaust-era testimony, she wrote of an everyday existence blighted by fear, death and hatred.

How tragic, knowing what became of her, to read her words: “Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles.”

Yet those who have read Anne’s diary will recall that, for all that her life was unlike many young people then and since, she was in many ways a typical teenager – frustrated by her mother, confused about boys. She could be petulant, she could be irrational. In another life, it’s not a stretch to imagine she might have been – as Bieber claimed this week – a fan of some fairly atrocious music. One of the many tragedies of her story is that she never got the chance to be embarrassed by her teenage passions.

Bieber is facing opprobrium for writing in the Anne Frank House guestbook that “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”

The correct response to a tale of persecution – to wonder whether the victim would have liked your latest video? Not to most of us, attuned to the sensitivities of discussing the Holocaust. As Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, noted, his message left her “a bit lost for words”.

Gillian Walnes, co-founder of the Anne Frank Trust UK, issued a sterner rebuke. “This is a place where Anne Frank spent two years,” she said. “Now 70 years later a pop singer is trying to hijack this for his own self-aggrandisement.”

She has a point, not least that Justin Bieber didn’t reach stratospheric levels of success without being a shameless self-publicist. If his visit had been purely a visit – rather than, at least in part, a publicity stunt – we wouldn’t even have heard about it.

Of course it trivialises the Holocaust to talk about whether one of its most famous victims would have been a fan of a singer with ridiculous hair; far more crucial to reflect on the piles of human hair, seized by the Nazis from their helpless victims, preserved at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Of course the legacy of a girl who died before her 16th birthday for no other reason than being born a Jew, deserves more than contemplation as to how she would have spent her weekends if they’d been hers to spend.

Yet look on almost every news site around today. Yes, there are headlines about Bieber. But there are also headlines about Anne Frank, and the Holocaust – articles that his mostly tween fanbase would be unlikely to peruse without Bieber’s photograph accompanying them. Anne is even a trending topic on Twitter.

And it matters. It matters because in 2009 a survey revealed that one in 20 British kids thought Hitler was a football coach, and because in a decade, there won’t even be survivors left to talk to them at schools, or grandparents around to share their memories. It matters because when Baroness Thatcher died, the interest of a confused generation was piqued mainly by a tweet from Harry Styles. It matters because children listen far more to their role-models than they do to well-meaning teachers.

We can lament that as a sign of a generation brought up on reality TV and 140 characters of trash, or we can see it as an opportunity, and look to these “stars”, with their poor spelling and ignorant remarks, and recruit them to spread the word about important issues. They’ll do it if it gives them good publicity; teachers and organisations should seize on that.

We’ll never know whether Anne Frank would have been a “belieber” and, if we had the chance, I’d hope it wouldn’t be the first question we’d put to her. But if even one 14-year-old asks his parents or teachers today about why she lived in an attic, or reads her moving diary, then we’ll have Justin Bieber and his ridiculous remark to thank.

My two weeks in writing

Last week saw Israel go to the polls for a general election. Following the surprising show of support for centrist Yair Lapid, I wrote for the Independent about how he was essentially “the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics” and expressed my hopes for the future.

With Holocaust Memorial day on the horizon, I challenged former Respect parliamentary candidate Lee Jasper on his comments comparing Israel and the Nazis, a comparison which was made later in the week by Liberal Democrat MP David Ward. In particular, his use of the phrase “the Jews” drew condemnation and a swift rebuke from party officials.

Elsewhere, I covered the row over a particularly gruesome Sunday Times cartoon attacking Benjamin Netanyahu – then wrote for the Independent about why I felt it was not antisemitic, merely unpleasant.

I  also interviewed former BBC presenter Robin Lustig on his distinguished career and why he is such an advocate of Twitter, covered the lunch of a new parliamentary probe in electoral misconduct and looked into why a holocaust education programme is not available in Northern Ireland. I also spoke to MP John Mann about his visit to Hungary and his thoughts on the rise of an extremist party there.

The fruits of my recent trip to Glasgow were also visible this week, with an extended report on the future of Scotland’s sole Jewish school, Calderwood Lodge, which has been the subject of a particularly fraught disagreement.

In Optima, to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I looked at the continued cultural significance of the novel. And I also questioned whether the tradition of changing a name after marriage was still relevant in the 21st century – not that I have made up my mind yet.

Scarfe’s cartoon may have been unpleasant, but was it really anti-Semitic? (Independent)

What is anti-Semitic is always unpleasant, but what is unpleasant is not always anti-Semitic. That was my take on Gerald Scarfe’s now infamous cartoon, depicting the Israeli Prime Minister wielding a bloodied knife over a wall dripping with blood and crushing presumably Palestinian victims between the cracks.

The image, published in the Sunday Times, would have put me off my breakfast, had I been reading the paper over breakfast. As political cartoons go, it’s not much for subtlety; the clear message is that the Israeli leader is an obstacle to peace and responsible for vast amounts of Palestinian bloodshed.

Now I’m no cheerleader for Netanyahu. In my view his continued support for settlement construction is obstructive and worrying, and my hope is that he will form a more moderate and peace-seeking coalition going forward. But you don’t need to be a Phd student of the history of the Middle East and the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours to know that the situation is just a little more complex than Mr Scarfe’s cartoon would have us believe.

If nothing else, the imagery of the cartoon – a wall cemented by Palestinian blood – is profoundly offensive, given that Israel’s controversial security wall (or fence, as much of it actually is) was built not to keep Palestinians as victims but to stem the tide of suicide bombers intent on causing mass bloodshed in Israel.

But antisemitic? Much of the commentary and discussion about the cartoon has been over its supposed association with the ancient blood libel against Jews; whereby Jews were accused of killing Christians to use their blood for religious rituals at festivals. Perhaps the most famous example of a blood libel occurred in thirteenth century Lincoln, when 18 Jews were hanged after being falsely accused of the murder of a local boy. So it’s not exactly baffling that a depiction of flowing blood, next to cartoons of innocent people being attacked by the leader of the Jewish state, might raise eyebrows among anyone with a basic awareness of history.

Still, plenty of historic bloodshed has had nothing to do with Jews, and cartoonists like Scarfe are known for pushing the boundaries of taste. Scarfe’s drawing, while undeniably unpleasant – and hardly a nuanced depiction of the political reality (where is Hamas in this picture?) – is not to my mind antisemitic.

The problem is the timing; publishing a cartoon castigating the Israeli Prime Minister on the one day the world has set aside to remember the Holocaust and its six million Jewish victims hardly screams of sensitivity. Scarfe may well not have known when the cartoon would appear, as he has claimed, but the editor could not have been blind to the date – after all, the paper’s explanation of the inclusion points to a feature criticising Holocaust-denier David Irving in the magazine of the same issue.

The point is that the Holocaust still means something. It is not just another news story, one tragedy among many, destined to become nothing more than tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping.

The Holocaust signifies humanity at its worst. It is not just a word, not just a useful comparison. It is millions of men, women and children shorn of all dignity, starved, denigrated and slaughtered. It is the brutal and systematic murder of millions, the persecution of an entire people for no reason other than their religion.

And it is still in living memory for a good proportion of the population. For many of those objecting to the cartoon today, it is the tragedy of those ancestors they never met, the grandparents and relatives who were gassed at Birkenau or lined up for slaughter at Auschwitz, the friends and loved ones who did not make it out alive.

And the day, the one day of the year, on which we recognise that and pledge for it never to be repeated is not just a convenient news hook, something for cartoonists or ignorant MPs to use as a peg for a point about the political situation in Israel or anything else.

When we allow a day of memorial for the victims of genocide to become a political tool, something has gone wrong. I do not believe the Sunday Times is in any way antisemitic, or that Gerald Scarfe is. But the cartoon is still deeply, deeply unpleasant.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

Yair Lapid is the kind of pro-peace politician the Middle East is crying out for (Independent)

I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.

As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.

On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.

Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.

Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.

He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.

He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.

That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.

Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.

Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

Delta’s fantastic Frankenstorm social networking

With tickets to New York to fly last Tuesday night, at the first reports of the Frankenstorm (or Hurricane Sandy, for those not on Twitter) I started to question whether I’d get there. By the Sunday afternoon, with flights being cancelled all over the shop, evacuations of huge areas of land and states of emergency declared in several states, getting there looked even less likely.

So I decided to tweet Delta, the airline I was due to fly with, to find out how to proceed if my flight was cancelled. Their account looked fairly active (plenty of companies have Twitter accounts that haven’t been touched for weeks or even months) and I thought it was worth a try. At this point, my flight was still set to depart as scheduled, but I wanted to know their policy on refunds and rescheduling.

So far, so impressive. First thing on the Monday I did as they asked. More flights were being cancelled and the news about the storm wasn’t good, but my flight was still supposed to go ahead.

So I got on with my day, until late afternoon – with the news out of the East Coast getting progressively worse – when I checked my flight. “Cancelled” it read, in glaring letters. I followed the steps showing me how to reschedule online, but inevitably that didn’t work. After a lengthy period on hold, we discovered that having booked through a travel provider, Delta’s UK staff were not prepared to help. But the provider claimed not to know of the cancellation (then closed for the day, with no option for an out-of-hours solution) leaving us in a Catch 22 situation.

So I sent a tweet.

After another 40 minutes on hold, I checked my phone. Delta had replied, and I couldn’t have asked for them to be more efficient. After asking for my confirmation number, they soon responded with an offer of a flight for Thursday, with a stopover in Boston. Not only that, but they offered to extend our flight free of charge a day later than we were originally due to fly back. I asked for them to email a confirmation, and within 15 minutes I had one in my inbox. I checked my reservation online, and voila – my new details were in there.

The fact that I was able to change my flights – during the worst storm to hit the East Coast in a century – is a credit to Delta. But if I’d only tried via the phone line, I’m fairly sure I’d still have been at square one after the storm hit. The fact that I did this via a set of Twitter messages is fantastic. This is exactly why social media is so important for companies. Delta should be congratulated on a job well done.