The View From England

This has been a shocking week to be in England. I feel very sad.

The overarching thread of the emails that I write for the Hazon list is our theme quote – “the Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah.” The various programs that Hazon delivers, the curricula we produce, the experiences we curate, the things for which we advocate; these exist not in and of themselves but as part of a larger picture. How do we best renew Jewish life so that the Jewish community can help to create a more sustainable world for everyone?

That’s the frame through which I’m back in Manchester, soaking up what’s going on.

I make these observations.

This is all one story. I mean this not in the simplistic sense, widely commented upon already, that there is a revolt, across many of the democracies, against the established post-war order, encompassing Syriza, the Scottish Nationalists and to some extent Bernie Sanders on the left, and Le Pen, UKIP and Donald Trump on the right. But the underlying thread is deeper still. In contemporary life “electoral politics” is one set of conversations – polls, elections, who’s up and who’s down, daily flame-throwing. “The economy” is a different conversation – GNP and the finance pages and statistics and markets. “The environment” is a different one again: climate change, fish stocks, GMO foods, water issues.

But this is all one story. There are 7.4 billion people on the planet, give or take, and rising. There are no unexplored places, no unexploited places. Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis argued persuasively that the move West influenced the development of the American character. In retrospect we can see that the closing of the frontier in the 1890s inaugurated what would become the American century. The rising prosperity of America and, post-war, of the West, depended straightforwardly on growth played out now on a global scale.

The stagnation of real wages across the west in the last two decades is not – in my view – a function of economic or political mismanagement; it’s not because free markets have failed (and other “left-wing” critiques), or labor unions are too strong (and other “right-wing” critiques). It is that, straightforwardly, we live now in one world, one planet, one economy. Two buckets – the western world, the developing world – have now multiple pipes between them. The water in one goes down and the water in another rises. A billion people, two billion people, in China and elsewhere, want what we take for granted: water from a tap, cars, dishwashers, TVs, a nice home. And as their economies have developed, with lower but steadily rising wages, two different challenges have steadily arisen. The first is the global constraints on growth: the impact of economic growth on fish stocks, pollution, carbon output, water resources. And the second is the inability of the West to grow its way out of trouble, as economic growth has moved to cheaper parts of the world.

So people who have lost out economically or socially are enraged at their legacy political parties, at experts, at the media. But – here’s the catch, and one we have to live with for the rest of our lives – there is no easy way out. The old way of heading west, both literally and metaphorically, has reached its limits. “A rising tide lifts all boats” may have been true for America for much of the twentieth century, but the tide isn’t rising any more. So it’s all one story right now: dislocations across the world, politics-not-as-usual, economic stress, environmental challenges. All one story.

And this leads me to my second point.

Political and cultural systems are fragile – we take them for granted at our peril. The post-war settlement that is being challenged now in many places is replacing continuity with discontinuity, the known with the unknown. There is abundant evidence that the Brexit referendum was called without much thought, and for parochial intra-party reasons. The campaign, such as it was, conflated a wide range of very different issues; and people voted, on the day, with a contradictory range of understandings of what their vote actually meant. It has been widely and accurately reported that key leaders in the Leave campaign a/ didn’t expect to win and b/ had no plans for what they would do on the day after. Yet by 52 to 48, in one of the world’s oldest democracies, the world is now turned upside down. Everything is now unraveling simultaneously – Scotland from the UK; the future of Northern Ireland; the Conservative party; the Labour party; the future of the EU. The only events since 1945 that have had such enormous consequences were violent exogenous events: the assassinations of RFK, MLK, Rabin; 9/11. There has never been a democratic vote whose consequences have been so momentous and potentially so destabilizing. (Alex White, from EIU, just published a deck of 24 tweets that sums up the potential impact. Behind each chart – these dry numbers – we need to understand that people will lose their jobs, new hospitals won’t get built; real changes affecting real lives).

From the end of the second world war through to 9/11, despite wars and recessions and tragedies, much of the West – and most of the Jewish people – lived with rising prosperity and a general sense of safety and security.

Now we’re in a different world. Human beings are capable of decency, bravery and great altruism. Human beings are capable of violence and of evil. Those of us who live in the US or the UK: we are not innately better or different than people who lived in Germany in the 1940s or Syria today. If we live without barbarism it is partly because we are lucky. The people in Syria right now, many suffering enormously; some of them committing great evil; this is what can happen when a society falls apart. The Chinese suffered under Mao. Germany, the home of opera and culture in 1890 and 1910 had by 1945 wrecked Europe and murdered a third of the world’s Jews.

My point is simply that we take social cohesion and peace and freedom far too much for granted. We are not morally entitled to live in peace and freedom. We live in peace and freedom if we maintain peace and freedom; if we act seriously and responsibly.

So – oy! – now what?

It is a long way down from this meta view not only to Hazon’s work but simply to day-to-day life: parents and kids and social media and to-do lists and what are we eating for dinner.

But a few small take-aways:

  1. Do not take civil society as a given. We know about Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. In response to what’s going on: we are connected, we should see ourselves as connected. The institutions of Jewish life – left and right, orthodox and progressive; we need consciously to see ourselves as connected to each other and connected to the wider society. Doing things with another shul is good. Doing things with a shul across real difference is great. Doing things with a gurdwara, a mosque, a church – even better. Coming together to break fast. Sitting and learning. Figuring out ways to engage difference;
  2. Step back. Retreats, Shabbat, switching off, staff offsites, sabbaticals. Too much is happening on-the-fly. We don’t take good decisions when we’re over-stressed;
  3. Step forwards. Support. Engage. Invite. Reach out;
  4. Read other people’s stuff. I read not only the NY Times but also the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal most days. And every now and then I like reading the ultra-orthodox press, or an English language Arab paper. We have to stop reading things we agree with. The argument we all know, that reading social media feeds that reinforce our views – the Brexit election is one of the first in which I think this has visibly done huge huge real damage. We each have to widen our lens;
  5. From all this: strive to be a centripetal force. It is far too easy nowadays to just lash out. The old Jewish injunction, tracing back to Hillel, to be able to explicate the positions of those with whom one disagrees; we really need that.

I have more to say, but I wanted just to make these few points, for now. Running a non-profit is hard: there is never enough money, never enough time, too many challenges to face. But I think the Jewish community has to step a little back from our day-to-day issues and see ourselves in a larger frame. We need to re-understand both our strengths and the coming challenges. I really like this phrase, lean in. We have to lean in.

The next stop in the Jewish calendar is the three weeks. Two guys – Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – so hate each other that one of them disinvites the other to his party. That’s how it begins. And when it is over the temple is razed, Jerusalem is in rubble, and the Jewish people are exiled from their land for nineteen centuries.

May we be blessed to live in peace and freedom. May we make wise choices.


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