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Don’t react to attacks on freedom by restricting it

January 25th 2015


Reflecting on events in France 200-plus years ago, philosopher and politician Edmund Burke was quoted saying: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Recent events, again in France, bring Burke to mind. Violence and terrorism are not acceptable in the 21st century.

There are many possible responses to the outrages at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket.

The easiest are to cast around for someone to blame, crack down further on the militants and look for ever more restrictive ways to counter terrorism. Such responses would be understandable, but they would be wrong.

For now, at least, France seems set to take a different route: to reaffirm its commitment to freedom of speech and liberty and to avoid the trap of restricting freedoms supposedly in its defence.

The rally at the Place de la République was a remarkable statement of defiance, a rejection of violence and an act of solidarity with both Jews and Muslims who for very different reasons have good reason to feel threatened and vulnerable.

We need to be alert to terrorism and to its corrosive consequences. We must learn from these attacks or we risk being Burke’s proverbial “good men”.

The outcry in defence of Charlie Hebdo’s right to cause offence is more than a principled defence of free speech. It is also a practical recognition that our own freedoms depend upon defending the freedoms of others.

Once one legitimises the silencing of opinions that upset us, the right to free speech ceases to be universal and becomes merely the right for the majority to impose its views and mores on the minority.

Over the past year, many in our community have been made to feel uncomfortable by attacks in the media and by others on Israel.

Some have been quick to shout anti-Semitism, with a view to silencing Israel’s opponents. If events of the past week teach us anything, it is that what we have to fear most are not the barbs and accusations of lively debate, but fundamentalists who seek to impose a deadly silence on us all.

The correct response to events in France is not retreat or to seek to silence our opponents, but to reach out, to engage and find common ground.

Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism and a former BBC executive

Top rabbi sparks freedom of speech debate over Charlie Hebdo

January 21st 2015

An outspoken United Synagogue rabbi this week triggered a fierce debate about the grey area between freedom of speech and incitement, after he accused the satirical cartoonists murdered at French magazine Charlie Hebdo of “sinning against society”.

Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of Mill Hill shul, writing in his weekly ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column for Jewish News, was referring to unflattering images of religious figures in the magazine, which was targeted by Islamist gunmen in Paris on 7 January.

Schochet said the cartoons were “not merely insensitive but a breach of fundamental rights,” adding that Judaism says “putting someone to shame is like bloodshed”.

The comments, which addressed “the paradox between the legality of freedom of speech and the illegality of incitement toward racial hatred,” caused significant debate among rabbinic and community leaders.

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said Schochet had “missed the point” while Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies, defended the magazine’s “right to print” the cartoons.

“Despite his language, Rabbi Schochet raises an important issue in that just because one has the right to publish something, does not mean one has to,” said Rich. 

“Nevertheless he misses the main point, which is that in a democracy and a society based on religious pluralism all ideas including those we hold dear may undergo investigation, criticism and even lampooning,” he said. 

“In the case of the cartons an idea, not an individual, was put to shame.”   Read more

Liberal rabbis offer reassurance after Paris attacks

19th January 2015

Liberal Judaism’s rabbis have featured extensively in the media over the last week, commenting during a difficult time for Jews in the UK and Europe.

Chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich was interviewed by Channel 4 News, speaking out against a proposal to allow proprietors of synagogues, kosher shops and Jewish property to be allowed to train and carry guns.

Danny said: "Terrorists rely on stoking up fears and want nothing more than a society in which we are prone to shooting each other.

"Now, more than ever, is a time to trust in the decency of the British public and the capabilities of the police and security services. This is not the time to be retreating into ourselves or armed strongholds."

Read the full story here - http://www.channel4.com/news/jewish-guns-anti-semitism-paris-france-attacks-menachem-margolin

Rabbi Leah Jordan, Liberal Judaism’s student and young adult chaplain, appeared on ITV News – in an interview that was also picked up by NBC in America.

Leah was questioned about the recent increase in tension and antisemetic rhetoric in the wake of the recent terrorist outrages in Paris.

Leah told the channel: “I would say that while we are very shaken by what happened in Paris, we are not feeling vulnerable”

Read Liberal Judaism’s statement on the Paris terrorist attacks here - http://www.liberaljudaism.org/news/1014-liberal-judaism-statement-on-the-paris-terrorist-attacks.html

‘Circumcision study was poor science’

By Dr Howard Cohen

The article published last Friday online by Frisch and Simonsen, claiming ritual circumcision doubles the risk of autism spectrum disorder, certainly caught our attention and that of the national press.

As a GP and a mohel (a ritual circumciser) for more than 20 years, a father of an autistic son and the step father of another it was a bit too close to home. My initial response was a feeling of dread that our choice to circumcise our new born sons in accordance with our tradition could have harmed them in any way – that our sons’ lifelong disabling condition could have been the result a single ill-advised event.

Coping with a diagnosis of autism brings with it the recurring cycle of parental self-doubt and guilt triggered by others’ opinion or poorly conducted research. From the discredited theories of Bruno Bettleheim that autism arose from emotionally frigid parenting to the unfounded concern over the MMR vaccine, autism history has been littered with erroneous theories of causation, laden with censure and blame. These left parents bewildered, saddened and with little hope or even a preventative strategy to at least avoid parenting more disabled children in the future.

In addition, the paper triggered an understandably defensive response. Outsiders questioning circumcision is guaranteed to unite even our fragmented Jewish community in a robust rebuttal and in this case rightly so. It is hard not to respond to this paper simply as an attack on Jews and Muslims and our practices.

This is poor science. The wrong type of study was done to explore whether a causative link exists. Observational studies can suggest associations but cannot explain the mechanisms of diseases. The authors seemingly failed to grasp both what autism is or what happens at a circumcision.

The complexity of the autistic brain with it challenges and on occasion wonders, so clearly arises from the combination of numerous factors, most of which are currently poorly understood. The single trigger theories, whilst superficially attractive are merely illusions which fade on close inspection.

The paper views all circumcisions as the same, whether on day eight or year eight, with or without suitable anaesthetic or analgesia. It plays into the prejudicial stereotype that the circumcision is a hugely traumatising event for the baby, accompanied by unimaginable pain and suffering. This is so clearly not the case, no parent would let the mohel through the door if it were, let alone invite them back which successive sons and grandsons.

As a Mohel, over the last 23 years I have circumcised new born boys, usually within the first twenty eight days of birth, always with a suitable local anaesthetic. As a Liberal Jew, I have learnt to question all our traditions, including Brit Milah.

Quite separate to this article, there is no need medically or religiously, to hurt a baby and I would be at the head of a campaign to stop the practice if we showed it caused harm. This article does not and could not make that case.

It does however raise a question, which is the role of observational research; it is for us to answer in a clear calm and reasoned way. That is the challenge for us all in the Abrahamic Tradition who are called upon to circumcise our sons.

Dr Howard Cohen is Mohel for the London and South East UK Jewish community and an officer of Liberal Judaism.

Call for more Jews to carry guns a 'dangerous overreaction'

Channel 4 News
16th January 2015

A rabbi's proposal for European Jews to be able to carry guns in the wake of the Paris terror attacks is "divisive and dangerous", leading Jewish figures tell Channel 4 News.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the director of the European Jewish Association (EJA), has called on the European governments to allow proprietors of synagogues, kosher shops and Jewish property to be allowed to train and carry guns in a bid to counter fears of rising anti-Semitism.

"Jewish people in Europe don't feel secure. There is too much fear and threat," he told the BBC on Wednesday. "We ask the EU government to make it much easier for Jews who want to carry guns to be able to do so."

He added: "We have to be in a situation where we know that each Jewish institution is protected by a few people who carry guns and will be able to protect institutions in wake of a terrorist attack."

But leading figures in Britain have condemned the suggestions which come against a backdrop of growing concerns about anti-Semitism in UK and France following last week's attacks in Paris.

Danny Rich, a senior rabbi and chief executive of Liberal Judaism, told Channel 4 News that the measure was a "dangerous overreaction" that risked compounding social division.

"Terrorists rely on stoking up fears and want nothing more than a society in which we are prone to shooting each other," he said. "Now, more than ever is a time to, trust in the decency of the British public and the capabilities of the police and security services. This is not the time to be retreating into ourselves or armed strongholds."

Read more

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