All are not equal before the law

The Italian Chamber of Deputies decided it didn’t want to dignify homosexuality by approving a law that would make hate crimes against gays punishable. On. Fabrizio Cicchitto of the PDL explains:

We’re not homophobic. Our position is basically this: we consider gays citizens equal to everyone else. For precisely this reason we contest every legal attempt at differential treatment which would thereby admit and accentuate diversity, which is in substance unconstitutional.

Which isn’t true at all. They don’t consider gay citizens “equal to everyone else.” It’s for this reason that gay marriage is still illegal here (among other forms of discrimination). They’re taking cues from the Vatican, of course, which has perfected the art of discriminating while playing the victim. They cry out about the tyranny of minorities, about how if you give them an inch they take a mile, that the majority (read, “Catholic heterosexual majority”) are somehow in danger of a rabble that wants wants wants…equality.

It’s always the same story: Italian politicians will not risk going against “Catholic values” for fear the Vatican will…what, exactly? What are they afraid of? That they’ll ask a nuncio to come home from his plush quarters down the street? That they’ll get “serious” – always a sign that someone has managed to piss off the Privileged Few? That the Catholic masses will be mobilized to take action against them? And when has that ever happened?

The Italian Constitution has this to say:

(“All citizens have equal rights and are equal before the law, without distinction by sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, or personal or social condition.”)

All of which sounds great, but isn’t true, either. (Notice, for instance, it doesn’t mention “sexual orientation.” Maybe that’s grouped under “personal/social condition.”) That’s why in every courtroom in Italy there is a huge wooden crucifix above the words, “The law is equal for everyone.”

But we know this is a lie, too. Just ask Judge Luigi Tosti.

How do you say “facepalm” in Hebrew?

h/t R.S.H.T.

Yaakov Swisa, founder of FaceGlat – an ultra-orthodox Jewish version of Facebook – has this to say:

“People who are God-fearing and care about their children’s education – cannot tolerate the ads and pictures one sees on the regular Facebook. I personally know people who have deteriorated spiritually because of all kinds of things they were introduced to there.”

You mean people who believe in a neurotic, psychopathic deity can’t deal with ads for, say, vacation houses in Croatia? (I just took a quick look to see what Facebook was offering me.) What’s wrong with them?

As for their children’s education, does Swisa really think Facebook offers tutorials on the theory of evolution, the age of Earth or any of those frighteningly atheistic things normal people learn about in school? No worries!

If people can’t have fun on FaceGlat and meet some interesting folks – or even converse with their own spouses – then what the hell are they doing there? Aren’t there enough morality police in Mea Shearim already?

Kill the men, rape the women

It doesn’t look too good for Rabbi Shapira’s plan to beat the swords of modern combat into the ploughshares of Yahweh-inspired warfare. Yesterday I wrote about his proposal for Torah-based practical combat; today I want to follow it up with a short paragraph from a book I’ve been reading intermittently for over a year. The book is called War in Human Civilization (OUP, 2006) by Azar Gat, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. Gat writes:

Warfare regularly involved stealing of women, who were then subjected to multiple rape, or taken for marriage, or both. Indeed, the story of Moses’ command to the Children of Israel to kill all the Midianites except for the virgin women who could be taken (Numbers 31. 17-18) typifies victors’ conduct throughout history: kill the men, rape the women, and take most of the young and beautiful as war trophies. If women could not be taken because of the enemy’s opposition, or because of domestic opposition at home, they would often be killed like the men and children, in order to decrease the numbers of the enemy.

Here, for the record, is Numbers 31. 17-18 (that’s part of the Torah for those unfamiliar with the term):

17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 

18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

According to BBC, the King’s Torah (Shapira’s controversial book) “suggests that babies can justifiably be killed if it is clear they will grow up to pose a threat.” This would be perfectly coherent with Torah-regulated combat, as we saw above.

The Torah may have been a slight improvement over earlier codes of law like that of Hammurabi – itself perhaps rather innovative for its time for actually codifying laws – where the punishment for nearly everything is death, but it has long been surpassed by modern secular ideas of justice in every way.

The Torah, like the Gospels and the Qur’an, is a document produced in a certain time and place by humans very much of their time (no human has ever been of any other). As such, it’s a fascinating thing to study. But any proposal that modern values be abolished or subverted out of allegiance to this ancient anthology of Near Eastern literature should be met with jeers. As a thought experiment, imagine what life in your country might be like right now if ancient Babylonian law was suddenly put into practice.

If fire break out in a house, and some one who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.

Now does that sound reasonable to you?

Torah-based practical combat

Sound like a guide to warfare based on the laws promulgated in the Torah? Well, that’s what it is. Rabbi Shapira explains:

“I think that people who read the plan will realize that what the Torah says is much more sincere than ‘purity of arms’ (IDF’s official doctrine of ethics). I think that calling it ‘purity of arms’ is a disgrace – it’s putting human life in risk.

“The Jews are wise people; they will come to their senses. The conscious and behavioral revolution will take place easily and pleasantly, and I hope we won’t have to experience difficult things for it to happen. We can’t go on acting like we’re acting today, because then the situation of the Jews here will be worse.”

This is a disgrace. “Jews” are not “wise people.” Individuals may have some modicum of wisdom, but no ethnic, national or religious grouping can be “wise.” Rabbi Shapira is a prime example of a Jew who is dangerously unwise, for example.

He doesn’t seem to realize that a “conscious and behavioral revolution” has already taken place in much of the world – and right there in Israel, too. That Israel practices an imperfect form of combat (often the IDF is chided for its “brutality”), yet doesn’t resort to fire-bombing wide swaths of enemy territory in order to cause maximum damage – a practice which would be rather simple given their technology – is itself an improvement over less moral ways of doing war. And it is definitely an improvement on the Torah.

…the rabbi strongly criticized Israel’s legal system and former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. According to Shapira, Barak decided to confront the Torah with all his might…

As well he fucking should have. A supreme court bound by allegiance to the Torah would fast turn Israel into the most backward nation in the Middle East. As a Jew and a liberal Zionist, all I can say is: to hell with the Torah. Fuck it. Throw it in the garbage. Don’t base your life on its teachings, and don’t let it rule your courts of law. If Israel has any advantage over its neighbors, it is to be found in its (rocky) adherence secular principles, not in the factoid that “Jews are wise.”

* h/t Ophelia Benson.

Postcard from Ectoville

Spooked out

In June we made our first trip to the United States with our baby daughter. After a trying week at the beach, we settled into a rented cottage immersed in the lush green of Hanover County, Virginia. Cows grazed next door. A family of chickens wandered over the grass to visit us each morning. In the evening, an industrious spider materialized on the porch, spinning its web anew, only to vanish by dawn.

By the standards of small town Virginia, we immediately became local celebrities. (My sister compared us to Jennifer Aniston, who is reportedly dating a man whose mother lives nearby.) A buzz built up around us: “The Italians are here!” We brought them real Parmigiano cheese (compare with “parmesan”), olive oil from Umbria (compare with “Goya”) and taralli laced with fennel (incomparable). We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

The pinnacle was Ashland’s July 4th parade. My brother-in-law was named honorary parade marshal, giving him and his family had the right to ride in a horse-drawn carriage with the mayor — an exciting prospect for my 10-year-old niece.

The whole town — except the misanthropes, if there are any — gathers yearly along Main St. to watch inventively named “brigades” march from one end of the township to the other. We saw the Lawn Chair Brigade composed of people doing a kind of Full Monty routine with, well, lawn chairs. There was also a Latin brigade, whose members mouthed the Roman greeting “Salve” and sported white togas. A man pedaled an old-time penny-farthing and an eccentric doctor marched on stilts. Then there was the patriotic dog contest…

The next day, my sister gave me a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Look,” she said, “you’re in the paper!” And there I was, looking on as the antique Big Wheel rolled along, part of the annual crowd. It’ll make a nice clipping for the family archive.

But it was a meeting at the barbecue the night before that most struck me. Over a plate of South Carolina peach cobbler, in an enormous, white antebellum home, I met a woman who introduced herself to me as a “ghost-buster.” I soon learned that she had cleansed the place where we were now standing of ectoplasm. It was a perfect setting for the conversation that followed.

I kindly probed as to just what is was that she did. Given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, she told me, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said.

As I patiently listened to tales of angels and spirits I began wondering if there was anything she didn’t believe in. I proposed unicorns. Maybe they were making the strange puttering noises that came from the attic. She dismissed the thought. Given her credulity, I wondered how she could shut out unicorns.

It was a weird conversation, hung with dusty spider webs, creaky staircases and relics of haunted house lore. She even spoke of a mysterious “third” dimension (spooky!). But when she knocked on a wooden bookcase we’d both been leaning on and announced, “This isn’t real,” I decided that further inquiry was pointless. Where do you go from there?

To save any embarrassment, I came clean. I told her I was skeptical, that I didn’t believe in angels, demons or the paranormal in general. I told her there was not a shred of evidence for any of the things she’d described. As she’d been frank with me, I’d return the favor. We parted amiably, returning to our respective beer coolers.

I love visiting Ashland. It’s like some long lost town in an America that probably never existed except on celluloid and the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. An overwhelming feeling of innocence, of childhood, creeps up on me.

Now that I have a daughter I’m coming to better appreciate innocence. Think about it: here is a human being with almost no sense of danger. She trusts people. She’ll put anything into her mouth. We, her parents, must keep watch over her lest she tumble down a flight of stairs or swallow a tack. I’ll be happy when Melissa is a jaded cynic, though; innocence is dangerous. It isn’t meant to last.

This observation illustrates the way I look at Ashland. Every time I visit, I wonder if it will still be the same. When will it morph into just another Richmond suburb? When will it shed that special cocoon of simplicity that so fascinates me, and which Ashlanders work to protect?

The moment we move into town, no doubt.

Published in The American

Cruel and unusual: Deuteronomy 13

Sometimes it’s good to go back to the Bible itself in order to refresh your memory of just what it says. You can read the whole thing – more than once, even – and still not recall passages like this one with more than a vague distaste. It’s surely among the most despicable and illiberal in a book not known for its openness to plurality of opinion. No discussion of biblical morality is complete without it.

1: If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,

2: And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; 

3: Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 

4: Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him. 

5: And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee. 

6: If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; 

7: Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; 

8: Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: 

9: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 

10: And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 

11: And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness* as this is among you. 

* The use of “wickedness” by the author(s) of this passage is pure, unadulterated chutzpah. Weep, O Israel.

The Italian Parliament is not secular

Italy’s Northern League wants a crucifix in Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament. They’re taking the Lautsi vs. Italy decision as carte blanche to impose their religious views in every angle of Italian life. The problem is, according to Cronache Laiche, they’re right:

Hanging a crucifix in Parliament is an act of coherence. The opposition, istead of lashing out, should have approved – even raised the bid – asking to hang a crucifix, a huge crucifix, in every angle of the Chamber and Senate as a warning to anyone who still thinks that the secular State functions independently of religion. A provocation? No, just the unavoidable truth. So that Europe and the entire world can see who we are, not that which we pretend to be.

Seriously, I thought they already had crucifixes in Parliament. How did they not get them on the walls before now?

A poison apple

Today my wife is attending a funeral for a young man – twenty five! – who recently died of a brain tumor. He was diagnosed only a month before.

My aunt died of cancer a few years ago, after a four year struggle. She was a very religious Catholic, went to church, kept statues of Padre Pio in her home and pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall of her bedroom. She took trips to sanctuaries. She counted priests among her friends. And yet…she withered away to almost nothing. She lived in tremendous pain. Then she died.

So where is this great God believers speak of? Either he is fucking with us – in which case he is an evil God – or he just plumb don’t exist. Why it would give anyone solace to have faith in  such a thing baffles me. Even some atheists I know talk of the “gift of faith” with not a little nostalgia (that they never received it.) All I can think is, What’s wrong with you people? We can do better than this!

We all suffer, atheist and religionist alike. No one is exempt. Life will end in death for all of us, with no regard for our belief systems, education, successes and failures. We all know this. It does no good to pretend that there is a benevolent being who is looking out for us, who is amenable to prayer and flattery, and who will save us when the going gets rough. It does no good because this is quite obviously not true.

Let’s stop pretending it is, and that faith is a gift. It’s a poison apple if it’s anything.

Israelis are not Nazis. Duh.

I try to be very patient with people I disagree with. This hasn’t always been the case, but I’ve learned that there is much to be learned from trying to engage people who see things differently – sometimes very differently – than me.

Yesterday on Twitter a woman I follow tweeted:

To which I responded, saying that the tag #Nazis seemed far-fetched, whatever her quarrel with the Israeli government was. I was greeted with absolute certainty that the tag was descriptive of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, that they are doing what the Nazis did to them, so…

What did the Nazis do, and to whom? I asked.

No answer to that. I wonder if this person is aware that the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany are not the same people as sit in the Israeli Knesset today. If not, her knowledge of history is atrocious.

It’s tiring and disheartening to point out to people that the term “fascist” cannot be applied with impunity to everyone one disagrees with. “Nazi” should be used even more judiciously, and preferably when talking about actual Nazis. “The Israelis”, no matter how much disgust they may fill you with, are not Nazis or even fascists. To use such words is to abuse them and confuse others. You end up looking like the extremist, not Netanyahu.

Get your terminology straight, or people will stop listening.