Just another brick in the wall

BADRI Raina, my Kashmiri scholar whose views I respect greatly has sent me the following email, with a purpose, I am sure:

“A female CNN journalist heard about an old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She went to the Western Wall and there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site.

“She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.

“‘Pardon me, sir, I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. What’s your name?’

“‘Morris Feinberg,’ he replied.

“‘Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?’

“‘For about 60 years.’

“‘60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?’

“‘I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults and to love their fellow man. I pray that politicians tell us the truth and put the interests of the people ahead of their own interests.’

“‘How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?’

“‘Like I’m talking to a wall.’

As far as I am aware there are heart-warming characters like Feinberg in every religion and faith. What we do not accept as readily is that their anti-thesis also exists within these faiths. Feinberg was fortunate to be alive unharmed. Gandhi got himself killed by a man belonging to his own faith for offering Feinberg-like prayers.

Being aloof from religion provides no relief. Bertrand Russell and Stalin make a good example as moral opposites within the comity of agnostics just as Godse and Gandhi did as Hindus. Benazir Bhutto’s assassin in all likelihood was a Muslim. Sikhs may have killed Indira Gandhi who they perceived as a sectarian Hindu but they also laid low Sikh leaders like Sant Longowal and Beant Singh among many others.

Karl Marx would not be surprised for he saw the world as a shade more complex than a mere tussle between religions. And the fine point with him is that though an atheist, given the desperate circumstances, he would have agreed with the spirit of his fellow Jew, the indefatigable Mr Feinberg.

Strife cannot always be understood much less resolved if observed with parochial references. OBL and the rulers of Saudi Arabia were from the same corner of Islam who swore by America as their mentor. Then what happened? Politics of oil or geo-strategic manoeuvre ended the illusion? How long are we going to accept the western definition of ‘moderate’ Islam? Chopping of hands and heads after prayers in Riyadh is moderate, according to the West. In their view, Qadhafi and Saddam Hussein were religious bigots, I imagine.

Rosa Luxemburg was very brutally murdered by Nazi prototypes not because she was Jewish but because they perceived her as a bigger threat being a communist. Luxemburg — the only person whose picture hangs in my library — was as critical of Jewish capitalists as she was of their Christian counterparts. That fine point is vital.

Romila Thapar would probably frown disapprovingly if I described her as an agreeable Hindu just as it would be offensive to see E.P. Thompson as Christian, Irfan Habib as Muslim or Howard Zinn as Jewish. They were or are brilliant historians who have observed and critiqued the past dispassionately, without fear or favour.

It is another matter that they too would all be standing behind Morris Feinberg in the seemingly hopeless quest for sanity. This even with their insight that the endeavour was historically doomed to failure.

I am of course not saying anything new here. Anyone who has read Nazir Akbarabadi’s 19th-century poem Aadmi Nama would be able to see that the eclectic point Mr Feinberg made was made earlier, in Indian poetry and elsewhere in other cultures. Man is the noblest of creations and man is the most evil, suggests Nazir.

The people who killed a group of Shia passengers after pulling them from a bus near Gilgit the other day obviously saw themselves as noble and the victims as somehow evil who therefore deserved to die. The delusion needs to be urgently treated.

I think the most important point in the story Badri Raina sent me is the element of implied self-criticism.

The imaginary Mr Feinberg’s imaginary prayers presumed Israeli folly in usurping Palestinian land even as he implicitly also critiques the radical Muslim call for Israel’s destruction.

I respect a host of Jewish heroes many of them journalists of integrity (though the other kind are more visible).

The Jewish sect that has caught my eye recently includes a body of Orthodox rabbis who advocate an anti-Zionist line and pitch for friendship with Iran. Followers of the Neturei Karta sect have embarrassed the Israeli hawks by visiting Iran and even accepting its right to make a nuclear bomb. I wouldn’t go that far as I think it would be suicidal to accept even one country with nuclear weapons no matter how ‘responsible’ they may claim to be.

The reason I would celebrate Neturei Karta is not because they advocate friendship with Iran or believe that the existence of a Jewish state in the absence of the messiah is religiously untenable but because the sect defies the widespread stereotype about Jews.

It began as a vocal opponent to the new political ideology of Zionism that was attempting to assert Jewish sovereignty in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. It resented the new arrivals who were predominantly secular and anti-religious, and asserted
that Jewish redemption could only be brought about by the Jewish messiah.

Of course, Neturei Karta doesn’t quite fit the bill as a secular option at all to pursue but the rabbis do help expose the perfidy of their secular brethren. I would rather join the prayers behind the devout Mr Feinberg than lean on the well-established secular wisdom of, say, a Shimon Peres. We have to look beyond the stereotyped friend and foe, The alternative is to keep talking to the wall.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.