Monday, November 1, 2021

How Israelis Vote

A few days before Israel's last election, I was sent a link by an NGO dedicated to maintaining “pure elections”. The NGO, Mishmar Habhirot  Ha’ezrahi (“the civilian election guardians”) stations observers at polling stations and was looking for volunteers. I could choose from three observation shifts: 6:30 am to 12:30 pm, 12:30 pm to 18:30 pm and 18:30 to the end, including the count. I registered for the evening shift which was less disruptive for my family, and would allow me to watch the vote count. 

The NGO’s website invited me to choose a polling station to observe. Since I live in a part of Tel Aviv close to Israel's main Haredi city, Bnei Brak, I volunteered to go there. I felt that Bnei Brak is somewhere where an observer might make a difference - and that it would be interesting.  My partner suggested that I wear gloves and a mask at all times - Last year Bnei Brak had the worst Corona infection rates in Israel. 

I was sent 20 pages of instructions, telling me how a polling station is organized and defining my job - Basically my mere presence was thought to prevent any abuse, but I was asked to keep a careful eye on things while avoiding "verbal or physical violence".  As an observer, I had to be attached to a party and officially I would be a Labor party representative (selected from a random list of parties who had agreed to participate). Since I am a "natural" Labor voter, I had no problem with this. Observers have a legal status and the polling station committee was required to admit me and record my presence and personal details in the protocol.  I was provided with an official observer ID, emergency numbers to call and a link to a website where I could make reports. 

At 6pm on election day, I got on my bicycle and rode over to Bnei Brak.  Bnei Brak is the most densely populated city in Israel with 26,000 people per square kilometer (Gaza has about 5,000 and Gaza city 10,000, see also the 8th densest city in the world). It is also consistently in the ten poorest cities in Israel (source is in Hebrew) . According to the Israel statistics office, monthly income per family is less than 3,000 shekels.    

As you ride into Bnei Brak, large shopping chains vanish and are replaced by small, privately owned stores with simple storefronts. Hairdressers sell yarmulkes. The roads are full of pedestrians, lots of men in black trousers, black jackets and white shirts, many women pushing prams and there are children everywhere. Apparently, it is the third happiest city in Israel with 96% of the over 20's satisfied with their lives (Bet Shemesh, another Haredi city was first - source is in Hebrew).

The polling station I had chosen was in a primary school, deep in a local neighborhood. Most Israeli polling stations are in schools or community centers and usually, each location hosts 4 or 5 stations with each station having a list of about 500 to 750 local voters. There are about six million voters in Israel and roughly 10,000 polling stations in about 2,500 locations (Hebrew: list of polling stations).

Getting to the school required navigation through narrow winding streets. The houses and cars looked neglected and the street lighting was poor. Nobody was wearing a mask. I could hear a vehicle with loudspeakers driving around: "Get out and vote!" (it said) "Secular Jews are pouring into the polling booths!". "Lieberman is campaigning against us!" (Lieberman leads a party with heavy support by Russian immigrants and promised to restrict religious power). A few elections ago (after 4 elections in 2 years, I have lost track of which election was when), Netanyahu claimed that "Arabs are pouring into the polling stations" and the Haredis were clearly imitating this. An overweight man in the regulation white shirt and black trousers invited me to come and join evening prayers (Haredi men pray three times a day). He looked disappointed when I refused.  I got a little lost in the side streets and arrived a few minutes late.

The school was a small "Torah School". Haredi schools are independent of the state system and this school did not look good, although nothing ever looks good in the Haredi world as they are impervious to appearances.
The courtyard had prefabricated (possibly temporary) classrooms, two of which were being used for voting.
There was almost no play area, only a narrow courtyard around the school with much of the space taken by the prefabricated classrooms.  I did not take photos because it is illegal to photograph a polling station.
The small street approaching the school is pedestrian only, which is a nice feature.  The street was overflowing with children, many mothers and a few men.  Two parties were on constant display: Agudat Yisrael (the Ashkenazi Haredi party) and Shas (the Sephardi Haredi party).  Many children asked me if I supported Shas. Nobody asked if I supported Aguda. In most cases, I could not tell who was Sephardi and who was Ashkenazi.

Inside the school, I saw no children's art. There were some old murals on the wall, one depicting a coastline and the others showing Orthodox men. My polling station was in the "gym", a very long classroom with many damaged floor tiles and damaged ceiling tiles. The room was split by dividers and the other side was another polling station. I saw about five large mattresses of the kind used for floor exercises and a vaulting box lying to one side.

Israeli polling stations are manned by 3 to 6 people: There is a secretary who cannot be a member of any of the 38 parties competing in the election and two to four committee members who represent the parties running in the election (they must all be from different parties). Two of the committee members are a chairperson and deputy chairperson (from different parties). There is also a non-party official observer - Somebody who sits there with a camera around his neck and does nothing. In addition, any of the competing parties can send an observer. No party may have more than two representatives in the polling station. All these people are for a polling station where only 500 to 700 people may vote: The school contained 4 or 5 polling stations.  There were also two young women (non-Haredi French immigrants) who were employed to periodically clean up the various polling stations at the school, at least one policeman, a desk with two people who directed voters to the correct polling station and a maintenance person.

The people staffing the polling station are paid about 1500 shekels (450 USD) for a day's work. In Bnei-Brak 1500 shekels is a big deal. Since Israeli elections are also a public holiday, there is no shortage of people able and wanting to work on election day. All buses and trains in Israel are free for the day and I was eligible for a free taxi (I preferred to cycle). 

I suppose having only two competing parties makes life simpler when it comes to representation, but when it comes to monitoring fairness, there is something to be said for having a wide range of competition. Coalitions may be awkward, but they do guard against dictatorship (no Israeli party ever won a full majority in the Knesset).

When I went in and presented my credentials to the secretary, there were four Haredi women "manning" the voting station. Three wore wigs and the fourth was a very young woman who I assumed was unmarried. There were also two Haredi men sitting to one side at a separate table: One was the official observer with the camera around his neck (earning 1,500 shekels for the day) and the other a voluntary observer like me, representing the Aguda party. I sat near the two men. In several cases, people came into the room, ignored the women, and headed straight for us men, assuming we were managing the voting station. This despite the fact that the ladies were sitting behind perspex dividers (protecting them from disease), had a ballot box in front of them and the Knesset logo displayed (a seven branch candelabra).

The NGO that sent me, provided a link to a website where I could log in and report. The website told me that the committee chairman represented Ta'al and the deputy represented Likud. I wasn't sure what Ta'al was, so I googled it. It is one of Israel's major Arab parties, headed by Ahmed Tibi.  Since all the ladies were Haredi, it was clear they weren't Arab and after a while, I went over and asked what was going on. The Secretary grinned under her wig "the chairman is wandering around, I can tell you though that he isn't what you would expect".
She pointed to one of the other Haredi ladies and said "She's the Likud representative". 

After about 45 minutes, a young Haredi man with untied shoelaces came up to me, and in an apologetic voice told me he was the representative for (Arab) Ta'al.  Apparently, his uncle is some kind of political activist and got him the job. They did a deal with Ta'al and instead of Haredis going to polling stations in Arab towns and the Arabs going to polling stations in Haredi towns, they all stayed close to home. So all the officials at the polling station were Haredi. This is a deviation from the intended diversity of the staff and is not an ideal situation for preventing ballot-stuffing.

In Israel, each voter hands a representative of the polling station their ID and in return gets given an envelope which they take behind a partition which hides them from view. Behind the partition, there are slips of paper for each of the many competing parties. You are supposed to choose the slip of paper related to your party (identifiable by 1 - 3 large letters) and put it in the envelope. Blank slips of paper are provided in case any are missing (you can write the letters on them).  You then come out from behind the partition and publicly insert the envelope (which hides your selection) into a sealed cardboard box, in front of the polling station committee.  After inserting the envelope, your ID is returned to you.

The rules require the polling station committee to cross off the names of voters.  This is done on two different lists, by two different people. They could cheat and cross off additional names, but would also have to insert the envelopes with the voting selection and a careful tally of the envelopes is maintained. Basically cheating would be complicated and would require a number of participants, including the committee members, to cooperate and insert slips of paper into envelopes and then into the ballot box. Given the large number of ballot stations, a huge number of people would be required to change the results by more than a small number of votes.  

The committee seemed serious about some aspects of their job and I saw no evidence of any cheating except for the high turnout, which at around 80% was extremely high but within the boundaries of possibility. There was much minor rule-breaking: Children wandered in and out of the voting station and occasionally went behind the partitions and took ballot slips.  The children were sill wandering around quite late in the evening. The committee chairwoman had brought her daughter to work and she too wanted to take voting slips from the polling booth. Many voters turned up with small children in prams. I had voted in Tel Aviv that morning and there the boundaries between the polling station and the public were tightly observed, although in Tel Aviv many voters were accompanied by their dogs, which is not something that happens in Bnei Brak.

One man tried to go behind the partition with his wife. He was called out by the committee and she then entered alone, spending a very long time choosing her slip of paper. I suspect she was illiterate. Very old or handicapped voters are allowed one assistant but this does not apply to illiterates. The use of 1 -3 letters to identify the lists, is designed to make it easier for illiterates. An assistant may accompany up to two different voters (handicapped or elderly) but no more and they may not be an employee of an old people's home. I assume that my presence made the committee more careful with the rules, but any failure to fully implement rules would have only impacted a handful of votes.

Official poster listing the participating parties (one withdrew at the last minute)

At precisely 10pm, the doors of the polling station were shut and we gathered around the table to watch the counting. Only the committee members could count. No one is allowed to leave or enter the room while the counting goes on and only the committee members are allowed to count. 

In the early 1980s, I lived in Brighton (UK) and studied Political Science, one of my lecturers stood as a candidate for the local elections and a friend accompanied him as he signed up elderly voters to do postal voting. My friend said that on one occasion he saw the lecturer, forcibly push an elderly voter's hand to cross the box he wanted. My friend was disturbed by this and it left me with an enduring suspicion of postal voting. So I understand the US Republican party's distrust of massive postal votes. Postal voting is not allowed in Israel. In some Israeli polling stations, anybody can vote regardless of where they live. In those cases, the envelope containing your vote is inserted into another sealed envelope with your details and sent to the central administration office for counting. There were about 10 of these votes at the polling station. 

To be clear, while I sympathize with the suspicion of postal voting, I believe there should be equality in voting conditions. 

Almost all the voters I saw were Haredi. The main exception I remember, was one woman with blue hair and yoga pants (I thought: "What is she doing here?"). Of the 570 eligible voters at my polling station, 470 had voted. 
About 300 voted for the Ashkenazi Haredi party and 100 for the Sephardi Haredi party. 42 voted for an ultra-right religious party (a national surprise showing) and 14 for the Likud. One person voted for the Labor party. There was one blank piece of paper cast (regarded as a canceled vote).

As I took my bicycle and left the school, I heard someone say, "Look!, men and women are mixing at the polling station!". Inside one of the temporary classrooms that had served as a polling station, I could see attractive, smiling young Haredi men and women talking around a table, while a couple of people peeked through the corner of the windows.

At the next election, I will volunteer to observe in an Arab town.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Jewish Kingdoms Outside Israel

Over the centuries there have been quite a few "Jewish" kingdoms outside of the Land of Israel/Palestine, however these have not achieved the fame or influence of Judea/Israel and have never undermined the Jewish religion's territorial focus on the "Promised Land".
I find these minor Jewish states fascinating and thought it would be a good idea to list them. What is suprising about these kingdoms is that they lasted no less time then the Jewish kingdoms in Israel and that in some cases they covered a lot more territory. Another interesting feature is that they almost entirely date to the post-exile period and that all came into being after the Romans adopted Chrinstianity.
These kingdoms were located outside the centers of recorded history (such as Italy or Turkey) and the documentation attesting to their existence is sparse.  Why there is so little record is one question that arises and I suggest several reasons:
1. Jewish kingdoms were not "empire builders" and empires have written human history.
2. Unlike Israel, Jewish kingdoms were not in strategic locations and not on major trade routes.
3. History, West of China and India, has been written by Christians and Moslems, who attach less importance to Jews.

Major Kingdoms

1. 380 - 520 (about 140 years) The Himyarite Kingdom  (West Yemen). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himyarite_Kingdom. See also https://www.hs.ias.edu/files/Bowersock_RiseAndFall.pdf
Image from Wikipedia
Wikipedia -
Like all the other Jewish kingdoms outside Israel, sources are sketchy, however unlike many of the others, there is archaeological evidence for the existence of a Jewish kingdom in the Yemen which used Hebrew as a medium for public inscriptions. The kingdom was involved in wars which were documented by Christian sources outside the Yemen, fighting Christian kingdoms in Ethiopia and fighting Christian tribes in Arabia. In his book, "The Throne of Adulis", Glen Bowersock suggests that these conflicts may have contributed to the emergence of a third way - Islam in the 6th Century. The Koran also mentions Jewish tribes in Arabia, which may be connected to the Himyarite Kingdom.

2. 695 - 700 Berber Jrawa tribe, ruled by queen Dihya  (North East Algeria).
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihya see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berber_Jews.
The Berbers are native North African tribes who are not Arab and are known to predate the Arab presence. There are a number of sources suggesting that some tribes adopted Judaism in Roman times. Queen Dihya achieved fame when the 13th Century Tunisian-Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote about her (500 years after her possible existence), saying that she had held up Arab Imperial progress in North Africa. It is likely that the tribe she governed had been Jewish for much longer and controlled a significant area, but there is little source material outside of Ibn Khaldun and North African oral traditions. Because the Berbers were largely nomadic and illiterate there is little scope for archeological evidence backing up the oral traditions.

3. 740 - 920 (about 150 years) Kingdom of the Khazars (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) .https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazars.
Image from Wikipedia

The Khazar kingdom was a buffer state between the Moslem Mongol kingdoms and the Christian Rus. The largest Jewish state ever (in territory), but the documentary evidence, while persuasive and contemporary with the time is a little sparse. The writer Arthur Koestler famously wrote about this kingdom suggesting that many Ashkenazis may carry Khazar blood (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirteenth_Tribe).  Not much remains of Khazar Judaism, leading some to suggest that only the aristocracy and government really practised Judaism. There are a group in this area known as the "Mountain Jews" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Jews), who do sound like they might be related to the Khazars. It is also said that there are no "Cohens" (descendants of the temple priesthood) among the Georgian Jews which could also be explained by Khazar origins.

4. 900 - 1620 (700+ years) The Kingdom of Semien (North-West Ethiopia).
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Semien. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Israel#Ancient_history.
If this oral tradition among Ethiopian Jews is even partly true, then the Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia may be the longest lasting Jewish kingdom that has ever existed.  There was a Jewish traveler in Europe called "Eldad HaDani" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eldad_ha-Dani) who said he originated from East Africa. The Cambridge History of Africa (volume III page 102, 2001 edition), quotes a 10th Century Arab historian called "Ibn Hawqal" as saying that a Queen of "Hadani" defeated the Christians on the edges of the land of "Habasha".  The original text gives no statement as to her religion.
Glen Bowersock, who writes about the Jewish kingdom in the Yemen, also appears to have evidence for a Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia, but there is little details of its location and size.
Unfortunately the evidence is sparse, because written histories were rare and little if any archeology gets done in Ethiopia. Even so, it would seem to make the Ethiopian Jews a very significant feature of our collective Jewish past. .

In addition to the list above, there have been a number of cities which were briefly independent and ruled by Jews, the most notable I have seen was in Fifth Century Sasanid Persia, on the site of modern Iraq: The "Exhilarch" Mar Zutra II, who claimed to be a direct descendant of King David, proclaimed independence and governed "Mahoza" for seven years.  Mahoza is now known as Al-Mada'in.
Mar Zutra's son escaped after the rebellion was put down, and moved to Tiberias where he headed a religious seminary.



Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Finding my Grandmother: Hope and Horror in the Holocaust

Hope

I grew up knowing very little about my birth grandmother - not even her name - although I knew that she had been killed in the Holocaust. I call her my birth-grandmother, because my father was adopted.
In the last few years I have learnt that her name was Henny Jenny. She was 33 when my father, Heinz, was born in December 1923.  They lived in Nuremburg, Germany.
Four years later, when she was about 39, her husband Hermann Messinger died of TB (Tubercolosis), leaving her with four young children: Heinz aged 4, Ruth aged 7, Esther aged 9 and Yehuda aged 14. I don't know the precise date of Hermann's death, it could be a year later or a couple of years earlier.

Henny's next door neighbours were Max and Betty Lowenstein. The Lowensteins were wealthy and childless and liked looking after Heinz for his mother. Betty suggested to Henny that she let her adopt Heinz. Perhaps she offered a payment which would help Henny cope, while promising to give the child all the benefits of a wealthy family. In those days, before easily available birth control and fertility treatment, such arrangements were not that unusual.
Both families were Jewish and members of the Nuremburg Orthodox Synagogue. Germany had recently been defeated in the First World War and there was growing anti-Semitism and growing economic chaos.
Henny accepted the offer and moved to Frankfurt with her 3 remaining children (she was born in Frankfurt), leaving Heinz, by then aged 4 or 5, behind.

Heinz Bernard Lowenstein (as my father was now known), grew up without knowing that he was adopted. In 1931, when Heinz was 8 his (new) father, Max Lowenstein, committed suicide.
In 1939, 3 days before the invasion of Poland, Betty managed to send the 15 year old Heinz to Britain but failed to get out of Germany herself (you can read about her eventual escape here).

Heinz didn't find out that he was adopted until after the war, when he was in his 20's. He was contacted by two siblings living in Israel, who told him that his birth-mother and younger sister had been killed in the Holocaust. No one knew exactly how the two dead family members had been killed.

In the 1980's, my father was sent a box of belongings his adoptive mother had left to a friend when she died. The friend had also died and her family now sent Betty Lowenstein's few remaining papers to my father. The box included his adoptive mother's Nazi-issued passport, the text of the speech she gave at her US citizenship ceremony and also two telegrams sent from the birth-mother (Henny Messinger)  to the adopting-mother (Betty Lowenstein) after Betty reached the United States.

In 2004, while unemployed and going through a divorce, I took an MA in History at Royal Holloway (part of the University of London). The supervisor on my dissertation was Professor David Ceserani, one of the witnesses at the famous trial of Holocaust-denier David Irving (documented in the movie "Denial" starring Rachel Weisz). I took a course on the Holocaust and would occasionally look for materials on my family history.

It took me about ten years to reach my birth-grandmother. Her name, I discovered, was Henny Jenny Messinger. In 1955 my father's Israeli brother had filled out a lost relative form in Israel and supplied this photo (the report is available online).

A German government website told me her fate:

Messinger, Henny Jenny

née Westheimer
born on 03rd November 1890 in Frankfurt a. Main / - / Hessen-Nassau
resident of Frankfurt a. Main
Deportation:
from Frankfurt am Main-Berlin
24th/26th September 1942, Raasiku (b. Reval), killing field

Destiny: officially declared dead    
                    
From this small entry, I started to piece together what had happened.  I learned that "Raasiku" is a train station in Estonia. Wikipedia told me that a trainload of 1,000 German Jews was sent to Raasiku at this date and all except a small group were then taken to a nearby seaside spot called Kalevi-Liiva, where they were shot. There was also a picture of the site:

The deportation date on the German website 
(24th/26th September 1942) happened to match the birthday of my daughter Shanny (25th September), and the name Henny Jenny, which I had not known when naming my daughter, was oddly similar. 

In recent years my partner and I have taken holidays in Poland, where my partner's father was born, and I was surprised to find that I liked the country. I feel safer traveling in Poland with my Hebrew-speaking family, than I do in France or Britain. My daughter turns out to look very Polish.  
After my last visit to Poland, I started to consider visiting Estonia to pay my respects at the mass grave. Two weeks later, a news item caught my eye: Holocaust memorials defaced in Estonia. It was accompanied by a picture of the memorials at Kalevi-Liiva, but this time defaced with a swastika:












I have seen images of defaced Jewish memorials over the years, but never imagined it would be related to my family. It motivated me to have another go at searching for my grandmother.


This time I realized that only one transport had gone from Germany to Estonia, which enabled me to trace it. I found more German records and a book with a two page description of the specific transport, based on eye-witness accounts given at a 1960's trial of Estonians who participated in the shooting.

This time I used the two telegrams my birth-grandmother sent to my adoptive grand-mother. The telegram on the right was sent by my birth-grandmother in May 1942.

Translation:
Hope you are well. What about Heinz? [my father] Ruth [the sister who was 3 years older than my father and whose fate is unknown] left address unknown. I am engaged with dentist Rosengarten 49 years. Marriage permit not granted, because I am stateless. Intimately.
Henny

The Nazi state provided no services to Jews, so marriages could not be registered. The name is "Sara Henny" because the Nazis made all Jewish women add "Sara" to their name: Men added "Israel". 
A second telegram was sent four months later, on the 22nd of September 1942:

One last goodbye before leaving. Thanks for all dear. God bless you and Heinz. Marriage on target probably. Seek also Rosengarten. Everything is very happy.

These telegrams are life-affirming: Henny was happy and in love, but she was also concerned enough to send the telegram. She was about to take a transport and people on the earlier transports had vanished into thin air. Her daughter Ruth "address unknown", never sent anything back to her. 

Ruth Messinger

The adoptive-grandmother (Betty), sent a reply six months after each telegram. I assume they took six months to reach her in the US, which means that by the time the first telegram arrived, Henny was dead.
Two days after she sent the last telegram, Henny got on RSHA (Reich Main Security Office ) transport DA 406 from Frankfurt's Ostbanhof station. The train departed on the 24th of September 1942 with 237 people guarded by Frankfurt police.
Survivors testified at the 1960's trial, that the passengers were allowed a suitcase and brought food with them. The train was not a cattle truck but some kind of troop train. Historian Anton-Weiss Wendt believes that this was the last transport of Jews to leave Frankfurt, implying that Henny was one of the last Jews remaining in Frankfurt.  

The following relies on material from Murder Without Hatred by Anton Weiss-Wendt (Syracuse 2009).
The train pulled into Berlin's Moabit station on the 26th of September 1942. In Berlin, more carriages were attached with an additional 812 people. This was also the only time the passengers were given water. Members of the Berlin Jewish community handed out soup after which the train was sealed shut. It was now guarded by transport police. Some of the passengers wore several layers of clothing so they could carry more clothes.  Clothes were expensive in those days and the passengers were only allowed a single suitcase. 
There were 108 children aged under 10, 354 men (average age 41) and 895 women. 
Source document 


Some of the passengers suspected they would be killed, but many were optimistic that the destination was resettlement.


Horror

The train arrived at Raasiku on the 31st of September (a 1,500 kilometer journey). Nine days after she sent the telegram and a week after leaving Berlin and receiving that last supply of fresh water.
A couple of hundred able-bodied people (mainly men) were "selected" to be slave laborers at a nearby camp called Jägala and the rest were taken in several buses to a ditch that had been dug in preparation. 

The victims were made to undress and then taken in groups of five to be shot.  The train was the second of a group of trains sent to Raasiku over a period of a couple of months for the purpose of mass killing.
After the executions, the killers looted the passenger's belongings. I find it astonishing that the killers were willing to wear the clothes of people they had murdered.

Of the 1049 Jews who were sent in the transport, 26 survived the war, 7 of them from Frankfurt. In 1944 a (Jewish) Sondercommando was sent to dig up the bodies and burn them. By that time it was common knowledge that the Nazis were losing the war, so they were hiding the evidence.

According to the testimony at the trial, most of the killing was done by the Estonian commander Karl Laak. Three other men were named: Jaan Viik, Friedrich Anijalg and Ralf Gerrets. The Soviets put these men on trial because they were the worst of this batch of murderers.  The Germans (including Otto Bovensien, Kurt Venter, Kurt Krause, Heinrich Bergmann and Karl Gehse) "only" gave orders, set up infrastructure and coordinated transportation: They let others do the dirty work. This was a pattern which repeated itself across Europe.  

My grandmother had a small piece of luck: She was not on the first transport. On that one, which came from  Theresiensdadt, the inexperienced Estonian killers made a number of mistakes: The ditches were too small for the number of people murdered, so the bodies piled up above the sides before dirt was thrown on them. Not everyone was completely dead, so there was writhing and moaning in the mass of naked bodies. 
Local people came by later to loot the site and testified (at the 1960's trial) that they found crude homemade whips lying around with bits of skin attached to them. Apparently, the killers took people with gold teeth to one side and extracted their teeth before they killed them; This led to screaming that could be hard in the local villages and was apparently stopped by the Germans who feared that Jews awaiting their "turn" would figure out what was going on.

Of the four Estonian killers who were tried in the 1960's, Karl Laak is said to have done most of the killings, and is most likely to be the man who shot my grandmother. Laak hung himself in Canada soon after the Soviet Union requested his extradition.   
It is astonishing how many of the (non-German) men who shot about 2,000,000 Jews for the Nazi "Einsatzgruppen" ended up in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 2001, the Guardian reported that 400 Nazi war criminals settled in the UK. Each one of those 400 men may have killed hundreds if not thousands of people, personally, using rifles. One man, who lived in Scotland, killed as many as 32,000 people.
It is estimated that 40 migrated to New Zealand, 1,000 to Canada and 850 to Australia.

At some point, I tried googling images of Kalevi-Liiva. This was when I got a shock: The killers had taken photographs and they were available online, on the website of the Ghetto Fighter's Kibbutz (Lochamei HaGetaot). These are not all the photos, which can be viewed at https://infocenters.co.il/gfh/list.asp (search for Kalevii-Liva).
The remaining passengers on the train were all made to undress before they were shot and the killers had taken snapshots.

I quite literally looked into the mass grave that contained my naked grandmother and from the view point of the killers.

Most of those shot were women and it is probably no coincidence that pretty naked women (both dead and alive) are at the center of the few pictures available from this massacre.  The killers may have got a sexual thrill out of what they did and may well have had particular reason to focus on these women: Laak , who led the shootings, was known to keep prisoners for the purpose of rape.
 

These photos are pornographic.  There are a lot of this type of image online and it seems plausible that ISIS supporters would have been inspired by this material. Searching online turned up a lot of these photos, from a huge variety of different websites and usually giving exact details of the location where the photo was taken.  Mass produced cameras were a relatively recent phenomena in 1942 and this was the first genocide ever properly documented. Perhaps because of that, it is also the best documented genocide ever.

This part was written later: I asked myself, where the photos came from, who took them? 
In 2020 I sent a mail to the Kibbutz archive asking for information. I was told that most were donated in 1964 (perhaps following the trial?) and that the source of the donation was not recorded. 
One photo (taken long after the massacre) was given in 1998 by Benjamin Anolik of Vilna, a survivor of the nearby Klooga concentration camp, who may have donated the other photos and was a former member of the Ghetto Fighter's Kibbutz. He had represented the Kibbutz at various East European Holocaust memorializations. 
Three transports were murdered at Kalevii-Liva, two came from concentration camps, but my grandmother's transport contained mostly of women and came from Germany, so they were probably healthier than those on the other transports. The images suggest a predominance of women, and they don't look like they have been starved over a long period. Laak is said to have murdered at least one sex-slave at the site, so she could be the woman in the photograph.

Sources for the trial of the killers can be found here: https://worddisk.com/wiki/Jaan_Viik/




Monday, November 27, 2017

Minorities in the Middle East

I recently heard an Israeli-Palestinian law-maker being interviewed on the Voice of Israel radio station. He had just returned from an academic conference in France where it seemed that Israel's treatment of its Arab minority was compared to minority treatment in Western Europe.  This can easily be misleading, annd I thought it would be a good idea to also compare Israel with other Middle Eastern countries. My findings from a brief investigation:
I rounded figures as they are very rough. Mostly they come from http://minorityrights.org.

CountryKurdishLarge religous minoritiesLarge national minoritiesTotal populationPer capita incomeHuman development indexLife expectancy

Syria

10-15%
Alawite 11%
Kurds 10 - 15%

20m

1,400

107

74
Christian 10%
Iraq15-20%Sunni 30%Kurds 15-20%35m14,00012069
Iran7%Azeris 24%
Kurds 7%
70m2,8009671
Turkey18%Kurds 18%75m4,7009273
EgyptCoptic-christian 7%85m1,25011170
YemenShia 33%20m60015062
SaudiShia 15%25m11,2007672

Jordan
10% Iraqi
6m

2,500

86

72
50% Palestinian
IsraelMoslem 18%(or) Arab 20%9m37,5001982

As you can see the main minority in the Middle East are Kurds. The famous Sykes-Picot agreement, and the subsequent League of Nation's Mandates ignored the Kurds, giving control of their lands to "Arab" states. Defining a state solely by the language spoken by a large group of its populace is problematic: Ireland is not an "English" state and Austria is not a "German" state.

How minorities are defined varies between countries. In some countries minorities are "indigenous", in some they are "racial" and they can also be "religous".
The British do not regard indigenous people as minorities, for example the British don't consider "Scottish" or "Irish" as a minority status. European immigrants, such as Poles may be regarded as minorities but in most tables minority status is "racial" so only non-Europeans are tabulated.

In Spain, indegenous peoples such as Catalans (16%) or Galicians (5%) are generaly seen as minorities. Although Israelis refer to "Arabs", these days, religion is the primary mode of distinction. Discrimination in Israel tends to be Ethno-Religious which I suppose reflects the primarily Ethno-Religous nature of the Jewish majority and does not comfortably fit into "racial" based groupings.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are the only states (outside tiny Gulf states) with significant migration from outside the Middle East: In Israel,unusually, migrants and their descendants form the majority of the population, with most coming from other Middle Eastern countries.

Regarding the Kurds, I found this:
  • Syria - There was, prior to the civil war, forced "Arabization" leading to a ban on the Kurdish language and a ban on the use of Kurdish names. 300,000 native Syrian-Kurds were not recognized as Syrian citizens. 
  • Iraq - 200,000 Kurdish civillians were killed 1986-1989 (genocide) and 1.5 million fled their homes in 1991. Arabization forced many Kurds out of Kurdish-majority cities.
  • Turkey - There have been Kurdish language bans (not sure of the current status on this) and forced removal of villages (don't know how many).

I left Lebanon out of the table. There is no majority in Lebanon.

Israel does not easily compare with other countries, it has charecteristics of a Middle Eastern country, of a West European and of an East European country. A valid comparison needs to use a wider base. Binary comparisons are likely ot be misleading ro fail to see the wider picture.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Is Israel a colonial state?

This is taken from an answer I wrote on Quora to the question Is Israel a colony or the Jewish homeland?

  1. Israel is partially the product of internal Arab migration.
    Roughly half of Israeli Jews are from Arab countries, and as such, by migrating to Israel they have migrated within the Arab world. My great grand-parents migrated from Romania and Lithuania to England as internal European migrants I don’t think they were colonizers anymore then my co-worker’s Algerian grand father who migrated from Algeria to Israel is a colonizer.
  2. Jews are descended from aboriginal inhabitants.
    Jews regard migrating to Israel as a return to a homeland that their ancestors left for a variety of reasons. That means that they do not self-identify as colonizers. In this context it is worth noting that much of the population (both Jewish and non-Jewish) are descended from various types of colonizers including the Crusaders, Romans, Greeks and Arabs. It is generally accepted that Jews originated in this area and before the Second World War both European and American academia regarded Jews as Middle Eastern immigrants (of inferior stock). Now academia has shifted ground but the Jews are still seen as being on the “other” side.
  3. The Jewish God, language, sacred texts and religious holidays all originated in Israel.The Old Testament was written in Hebrew a Semitic language which originated in Israel. Religious holidays are timed to coincide with the weather in the Middle East and include harvest festivals, pilgrimages (to Jerusalem) and a lunar calendar which is useless in Europe where clouds cover the moon.
  4. No other independent entity has existed on this territory.Most of the independent countries to have existed on the site of modern Israel within the last 2,500 years are Jewish states. There has been one Crusader state created by the Normans which was independent. All Arab or Moslem rulers had their seat of government outside the country, as part of a wider Empire.
  5. The first European Jews who arrived in the 19th century identified as colonizers but arrived during Islamic rule .
    The first European Jews to arrive during the 19th Century (about 30,000) often called their settlements “colonies”. However the main ruler was the Ottoman Empire and most rejected their European origins, preferring to speak a local language (Hebrew rather than Yiddish). Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion and second president (Ben Tzvi) both served in the Ottoman Army during the first world war and attempted to recruit American Jews to fight on Turkey’s behalf. In that sense they were asylum seekers and not colonizers.
  6. Zionism used colonialism as a tool.Those first European Jewish migrants were Zionists and the Zionist movement up until 1917 sought to settle the country under Ottoman rule (hence Ben Gurion’s support for Turkey). Early Zionists tried to setup universities that would serve the Turks while aiding migration. However when the chance arose the Zionists had no compunction about riding the British coat tails and using British rule to get their cause recognized. That I think is the base for the claim that Zionists were colonizers, but to some extent they were using the British and the relationship, which was always tense, eventually broke down (from 1938).
  7. The Arab population are also colonizers.Although colonialism is associated with modern Europe there is a case to be made that much of the Arab population arrived in Israel as Imperial colonizers. There are communities brought here by the Turks, by the Egyptians (under Muhamed Ali) as well as Bedouin Arabs who probably came with the conquest.
  8. The question is academic and not relevant.
    The Jews are here, they are blending in. In a few generations all Jews will be descended from Arab-Jewish migrants and European refugees from the Holocaust. Colonialism no longer exists and is not relevant to the modern world.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

From Gaza to Belfast: My four weeks as an Israeli soldier in Gaza

In 1996, I did 4 weeks reserve duty with the Israeli army in Gaza. It was the only time I ever served in the occupied territories. I was posted as a medic attached to a field hospital, near the Palestinian town of Rafiah at the South end of Gaza. The field hospital was manned by fellow reservists who knew each other and a doctor who commanded them. I was not normally part of this field hospital, so the doctor who commanded it, placed me "in the field", supporting the soldiers.
Our unit was an artillery unit which had been sent to guard "the Philadelphi road". At the time it was probably the most dangerous place under Israeli control, outside of South Lebanon which was also occupied.
The Philadelphi road was a narrow strip of land running along the border between Gaza and Egypt.
Between 1967 and 1977 the Israelis governed Sinai and Rafiah spread into what had once been Egypt. After the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, the city was spread across both sides of the border and a narrow road went through it, which was the new border. The width of the road varied at different points but it was mostly about 10 meters wide. There were Palestinian houses on either side and the road was lined with concrete barriers, placed there to protect the soldiers. A fence ran along the Egyptian side of the road, marking the boundary between the two countries and preventing infiltration (this was before the tunnels). There were also watch towers along both sides: Small Egyptian watch towers (about one or two floors high) and massive Israeli watch towers.  I no longer remember their height but they towered over the surrounding area and I would guess they were about 4 floors up. There was a ladder to climb up and the watch tower was like a boat made of inch thick steel floating above Rafiah. When the wind blew, you could feel it swaying. As you climbed the watch tower you could see all of Rafiah and it amazed me that nobody took shots at us.
I was the medic for the Philadelphi road. I sat in the back of a jeep and we drove up and down the border, patrolling it. The seats in the back of the jeep were benches running along the side walls (not car seats), designed to allow us to rapidly jump out the back and to carry more men. I was taught to sit with my rifle poking out the back of the jeep - so if I accidently opened fire, the resulting bullet would not bounce around the jeep and so I was already in place to attack anybody trying to assault the jeep.  When guards in the watch towers needed to go for a shower, I climbed the ladder and sat in the tower, replacing them until they returned, so I saw all the watch towers. They were horrible.
We didn't only patrol the border, we also drove around the surrounding areas. I remember sitting in the jeep on the first day and there were four of us: The driver was an Ethiopian immigrant, the jeep commander, who sat next to him at the front, was born in Israel and in the back was me - born in the UK, and next to me a Russian immigrant. Both I and the Russian sat with our rifles poking out the back. On our first day we were looking for the army petrol station and I looked up from a vague day dream to realize we were about to drive up a back road into Rafiah.  "We are going into Rafiah!  We are going into Rafiah!" I screamed several times.  The driver stopped and the commander paused, we hastily backed up. It was probably the most dangerous moment in the 3 weeks.  Had we gone into Rafiah we would have faced being lynched or shooting our way out.
I didn't see many Palestinians. We lived in a small fort right near the Philadelphi road, but on occasional visits to the field hospital, which was in a large secure military base, we went through a checkpoint used by Palestinian civilians. I remember an old lady loudly gasping in horror as she saw my rifle poking out the back of the jeep. Later I was in another jeep whose commander liked to drive down to the beach and gaze at the bathing Palestinians. It looked wonderful, I wryly reflected that had it been safe for Israelis we would have been down there in the thousands eating cheap Humous and enjoying the beach.  Eventually I told the commander that we had to stop doing it because we were spoiling their relaxation time. He listened and we stopped going.
On one occasion we were sent to protect a technician who was repairing the border fence with Egypt. We stopped the jeep and I got out and stood next to him like a bodyguard.  Most artillery men are small and unfit, that is why they are in artillery. I was the opposite, as a new immigrant the fact that I was tallish and fit got me into artillery even though I had little military training.  Most people were fooled, I looked very war like, especially with all my medical equipment (I routinely carried 2 or 3 litres of intravenous drip fluid, not to mention a selection of bandages). Eventually the commanders realized that I had little military training and moved me to a less exposed position, but it took a while. While I guarded the man fixing the fence, a Palestinian woman wearing nothing but a bath robe came out onto a balcony next to the road. She started motioning for me to come to her. An Egyptian border guard scowled at her and she scowled back. I hadn't seen a woman for 10 days and it was all I could do not to start running over. Fear of a trap stopped me.
There was another fort right up against the Egyptian border which we visited. It had a table with a bullet stuck in the wood, and they said that the backyard was an Egyptian tourist spot. Busloads of Egyptians would climb onto a little platform to ogle the Israeli soldiers. When I head this, I said that I has to see it. I went out and walked to the backyard, as I walked I heard loud gasps from the assembled tourists.
The unit that replaced us were full time soldiers (doing national service), not reservists. They had a massive tank-like armoured personnel carrier,  We were the last reservists on the Philadelphi road.

A few weeks later, I got a new job working for an Israeli phone company.  They sent me to Ireland to learn about their new billing system. On my first day at work, I was given 2000 dollars in cash and plane tickets. I flew to Galway in Ireland. After a few weeks in Galway, Southern Ireland, I decided to go see Belfast.
I hired a car and told the car hire man where I was going.  "Is it a problem?" I asked.  "No" he said and then "I have just the car for you". He rented me a metallic green Audi. As it happened I was wearing a green fleece. I didn't realized the significance of it.  In those days there were no motorways in Ireland, but there was outside Belfast and I drove into Belfast at 100 miles per hour. Children waved at me. I didn't understand why.
In Belfast I went to the notorious Falls Road area, there I saw British troops creeping between the houses, trailed by small children carrying stones.  It was like Gaza except that it was Europe and the houses looked lovely - though there was a noticeable lack of cars.
When it was time to eat, I found it very hard to find a restaurant (Belfast had little night life) but someone told me to try near the university. I found a massive 3 floor pizza place next to the university and had a good meal. There was a stag night party there and as I left the restaurant I saw what was clearly a stripagram - a woman wearing little but a fur coat - going into the restaurant.  I cursed my back luck at leaving the restaurant too early. At that second a British army jeep went by. A rifle was poking out the back in my direction.

Three months later, Netanyahu opened a tunnel that ran along the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There were massive riots and all hell broke out along the Philadelphi road. 17 soldiers died (shots came from both Egypt and Gaza) and an Israeli Colonel was killed in the fort on the border (the one with the bullet in the table). My reaction was massive relief: I was glad it didn't happen when I was there.

Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...