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Friday, July 18, 2014

Watching the rockets go by: Hamas missiles over Tel Aviv.

Missiles are currently being fired at Tel Aviv almost every morning, around 8:30 am. I assume that Hamas leaders go to morning prayers, pray to God and then press the firing button on their automated rocket launchers, before heading home to sleep off the exertions of Ramadan.

The other day they caught me on my bicycle. There was a siren and people around me began running for cover.  I considered the option of crouching next to a wall and decided to ignore the whole situation: in Tel Aviv being hit by a rocket is a bit like winning the lottery: Extremely unlikely but just as that never stops people buying tickets, so it doesn't stop Hamas firing or people running for cover. 

On the highway near me, the cars had stopped and some drivers were crouching behind their cars while others were simply standing there looking up into the sky.  There was a bus full of black hatted Haredi men who just got out and watched upwards, making no effort to take cover.

I also stopped and craned upwards, trying to see the missile heading towards me, when I saw four smoke trails rising up from the East - not from Gaza - they were heading up at incredible speed and I realized they must be Iron Dome missiles. Then I saw a bright light high in the sky heading South to North. Coming from the direction of Gaza, it was clearly the Palestinian missile: the light must have been its engine. One of the missiles fired by Iron Dome went straight for it and the light went out.  

The explosion came about five seconds later: sound travels at 350 meters per second and this must have been a few kilometers away.  It was followed by several more explosions.  If there were more missiles I didn't see them but some of the action was in the clouds so it seems reasonable to assume there were more.

The siren lasted a couple of minutes, but the missile drama was over in seconds, too fast to photograph. I got back on my bicycle and headed to work, as I rode through the park, every one I saw seemed to be smiling: perhaps from relief.  Perhaps happy to know that Iron Dome is out there protecting us. I spent my ride thinking about how I would write this blog.  Its taken me a couple of days to get round to it because of work pressure.  
Yesterday evening we finally went out to see a movie - a wonderful Israeli film called Zero Motivation about teenage girl soldiers. We took a baby sitter and figured that the Hamas rocket men would, as usual, leave their rockets for the morning prayers.  Well they didn't. The siren went off at the exact moment that the cinema advertising ended and the movie started: so it didn't interrupt our viewing and we had the strange experience of the entire movie audience going down into the exit tunnels to wait for "the booms" which indicate that its all over and then wandering back to their seats.  "Where were we?" shouted the bloke who was manning the device that runs the movie (can't think what he's called).  "Just start from the beginning!" we all shouted.

This shows something like what I saw:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

My stint as an agricultural advisor to Sinai Bedouin.

Some time in the mid 1990's I took my aging VW Beetle down to Sinai.  A friend advised us to go off road at a spot on the road from Dahab to Mount Sinai and visit an oasis deep in a valley. It sounds crazy now, but somewhere in the Sinai desert we took our twenty year old Beatle off the asphalt and slowly bounced along a dirt path through the desert. The only air-conditioning was the open windows. After about twenty minutes of this we were overtaken by two Bedouin men in an almost new Toyota pick-up. They motioned for us to stop and suggested that we park our car and ride with them. They were wearing beautiful traditional Bedouin clothing. Given that the Beetle was taking quite a beating on the track I was quite happy to leave it, and they then "hid" the VW behind a boulder.  Although it was the only car on the "road", it was completely invisible and I would never have been able to find it again.

We got into the Toyota with the Bedouin and drove down to their oasis. These were young Bedouin men who had grown up under Israeli occupation and spoke good Hebrew. They told me that the Toyota pick-up was the best pick-up in the world. I had no reason to disagree. We still bounced but now we bounced along the track at high speed, coming to a stop in a wide open valley where a number of dry-river beds met. The valley contained a large village of mud-huts with no electricity or running water and it was where these young men with the truck lived. 

My ex-wife who was with me, had once worked for the Israeli social services checking on primary school enrollment of Bedouin girls and she switched into professional mode checking up on the Bedouin girls. I think we may have brought pens with us to hand out to Bedouin children: these trivial items of schooling can be quite valuable in mud-hut villages with no running water.

Anyway at some point the finely clothed Bedouin gentleman who had carried us in his Toyota, approached me and asked if I could help him with an agricultural problem: he had a small garden with a beautiful fruit tree in it (peaches I think) and it was infested with greenfly.   For the record the Sinai Bedouin often have immaculate tiny farms (more of a garden really) in the desert, some (possibly most) of which are residues of Byzantine terraced farming.

I understood that I was being asked as an Israeli.  I suppose a lot of Kibbutzniks with some farming training used to turn up at Bedouin villages and he figured I might know something.  Well I did.

In the early 90's an old primary school friend of mine, Gur Bentwich finished film school at Tel Aviv University (see this in Hebrew).  His final film was an amusing tale about a couple seeking a cure for greenfly/aphids on their home grown cannabis plant. They go from one weird dope-head to another seeking a solution until a prison inmate comes up with a viable solution - yelled from the walls - which involves boiling cheap cigarettes in water and then spraying the water on the plants. I remembered Gur's movie and told him to boil up some cigarettes and spray it on the tree and warned him not to let anybody drink the mixture as it was poisonous.

Soon after that, The Bedouin, indicated it was time to go and loaded us back into his pick up truck, drove along the bumpy dirt track until he came to a large rock, behind which we found our VW.  I later lent Gur my VW Beetle while he was working on his next movie, Planet Blue.

I subsequently learnt that Native Americans used tobacco plants as a pesticide.

See also my post:
Sleeping amid sacks of Cannabis: My night with Bedouin opium farmers in Sinai

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Are territories Israel conquered in 1948 occupied? Why Israel needs boundary recognition.

Look up the "occupied territories" and across the internet you will hear the same story: The areas occupied by Israel in 1967 are not its territory and it is not allowed to house its citizens on those territories. But there is a problem in that statement: It assumes that the territories held by Israel before 1967 were not occupied. In 1948-1949, Israel conquered a large swathe of territory that the UN designated as a "Palestinian state" or in the case of Jerusalem, as an international zone. Until 1967, the Arab demands were for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1947 partition lines, after 1967 to the 1949 cease fire lines (the pre-1967 borders).
While the 1949 cease fire lines appear to be universally accepted, there is no guarantee that those boundaries are recognized and it is quite possible to argue that Jaffa or upper Nazareth are "illegal settlements".
My son was born in Jerusalem and has an American passport which states that he was born in Jerusalem but not in which country.  The USA, like most other countries has taken care never to recognize Israeli rule in Jerusalem, although half of the city was Israeli before 1967. Effectively the USA is not only not recognizing the 1967 occupation: It is not recognizing the 1948 occupation either.  Ironically Jerusalem is the one place in Israel which had a Jewish majority before the British occupation/mandate in 1917.
The main difference between 1949 and 1967 is that in 1967 the UN Security Council explicitly stated that Israel could not annex the territories, and Israel hasto some extent accepted that decision.  In 1949 the Security Council admitted Israel as a member of the UN and said nothing about territorial borders, so the status of territories occupied in 1948 is hazy. The 1947 partition decision, that preceded the 1948-1949 war, was never executed: The Arabs refused to accept it and the UN never took steps to implement it, so it might be argued that it was a dead decision of no subsequent significance.
In 1948 Jordan and Egypt occupied the West Bank and Gaza while Syria occupied a small swathe of territory designated as Israeli. Perhaps because in 1967 Israel was the sole "occupier" there was no difficulty in passing a resolution whereas in 1948 it was more complex.
There is also an ambiguity: While Israel's occupation of the Golan and Sinai was an occupation of sovereign state territory, in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem it was replacing a previous occupier.
The reason I raise this issue is that I believe Israel has a lot to gain from internationally recognized boundaries.  Recent events have shown that peace treaties with Arab states are hardly precursors to a new international order, but at least the borders with Egypt and Jordan are stable and governed by peace treaties and while the "peace" is at times utterly minimalist, there is a lot to be said for having indisputable boundaries.  The Palestinians clearly cannot guarantee the Israelis much in the way of peace but internationally recognized borders might be of value. Few modern states, if any, are so lacking in internationally recognized borders and there is a potential future threat should Israel withdraw from the West-Bank without a treaty.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How frequently does the USA veto anti-Israeli UN Security Council resolutions?

The Security Council is the only international body whose decisions are genuinely "law" and need to be obeyed. That is because they imply an agreement between the world's great powers: USA, Russia, China the UK and France and can be implemented by force (though that requires a further decision). To give you an example, if the International Court in the Hague makes a decision, it becomes a recommendation to the Security Council. If the council ignores it or it is vetoed it has little or no significance. The same applies to UN General Assembly votes: they are recommendations to the Security Council and can be ignored or vetoed. The "big five" members basically take all the decisions and a great power consensus is required for any action to be taken.

There are 10 temporary Security Council members drawn from the General Assembly on a mixed rota-election system.  Those members can make proposals for the others to veto or forget. This is significant because about 15% of UN states are Arab and a further 15% Moslem, so they are almost always in the Security Council.  Israel has never sat on the Security Council and as the only "Jewish" state is clearly very isolated at the UN.  At present Jordan is the only Arab member and Nigeria the only largely Moslem country in the Security Council so Israel has a relatively easy period.

So how often does the USA veto anti-Israel decisions?

I counted vetoes from the UN's foundation to 2009. In total 185 vetoes were cast in that period, of which 96 were cast by the USSR/Russia (mainly the USSR) and 78 by the USA. In some cases the other permanent members participated in vetoes, mainly the UK voting with the USA but also France and China occasionally cast vetoes. 

The USA did not cast a single veto before 1970. Most of the USSR's vetoes were cast in that period when the UN and the Security Council were dominated by pro-Western states. Following decolonization, the emergence of a third world voting block shifted power to the Soviet block and the USA then cast lot of vetoes, primarily in reference to the Middle East and Vietnam war.

In the 23 year period 1946-1969, when the USA cast no vetoes at all, the USSR cast 80 vetoes of which 5 vetoes related to Israel: the causes were Syrian-Israeli conflict over water diversions, Egyptian-Israeli conflict over access to the Red Sea and attacks on Israeli civilians.

From 1970 to 2009 the USSR/Russia cast 16 vetoes, only one of which related to the Middle East: In 1984 the USSR rejected a call for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, then occupied by Syria and Israel.  Since 2010 it has cast a number of vetoes related to Syria.

France and the UK cast 8 vetoes in the 1946-1969 period. All with relation to the decolonization of Africa, two were about the Sinai crisis.

In the 30 year period 1970-2009, the USA cast 78 vetoes of which 39 - exactly half- were related to the Middle East, so on average the USA has vetoed one anti-Israeli decision a year since 1970.
Democrats governed the USA in 1977-1980, 1993-2000, 12 years out of the 40 year period examined: Only 6 vetoes were cast by Democratic presidents, but 4 of those were Israel-related (one or two per presidential term).
Half of all US Security Council vetoes were during the Reagan presidency, and it also was responsible for half of all Israel-related vetoes, either in relation to the occupied territories or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. 10 vetoes were cast during the presidency of George Bush Junior of which only one was not related to Israel, in other words 3/4 of all pro-Israeli vetoes were cast by two US presidents.

The necessity of using the veto is often the product of poor inter-state relations. The point about the security council is that issues are resolved in back rooms and not through global confrontation. Use of vetoes are a form of low level confrontation and the high incidence of vetoes under Reagan and Bush may reflect poor inter-state relations, with Israel being an easy way to embarrass the USA because of its lack of international support.

Because I only studied vetoes I can't comment on what the Security Council was actually deciding, and strictly speaking the two need to be examined side by side. Israel is not the only long-term conflict, though it is arguably the UN's oldest conflict. India-Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, Tibet, Sudan and Congo all come to mind and they attracted almost no vetoes.

So is Israel dependent on the US veto? I would say, yes, but less then once a year.

Source: United Nations Security Council - Veto List

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Cheap at the price: Why the USA supports Israel

In debates about Israel, I frequently see references to US aid to Israel.  This is generally provided as evidence of the power of the "Israel lobby" to divert American resources without reference to US needs.  The underlying assumption of this thesis is that support for Israel is not an American interest.

In fact the USA has important reasons for supporting Israel. Modern arms are extremely expensive to produce and generate no financial rewards, unless of course you manage to sell them.  The USA is the world's largest exporter of arms and the profits that it generates on arms sales help fund its arms manufacturers, whose main expense is not manufacturing the arms but doing the research and development needed to design them: By making arms manufacturing more profitable arms sales lower the procurement price for the US military and fund the research required to develop the next generation of weapons.  To put it differently, US military power - at the moment it is the strongest nation on earth - is dependent on its ability to produce the best weapons and sell them.

 Israel is a major customer for US arms - US aid to Israel is not spend it how you please cash, but credits to buy US weapons. The Israelis get a percentage of arms freebies but at the same time the Israelis are among the largest customers for US weaponry and US freebies prevent the Israelis from developing cheaper alternatives or shopping around- which could undermine the USA.  Israel is a major testing ground for US weapons, and Israeli innovation and research plays a key role in forming the next generation of US weapons. Much of US aid actually goes to fund Israeli military research and development and in return Israel gives the USA access to the know how generated by that research.  For example the US funded Israeli anti-missile missiles such as Iron Dome and in return received the technology developed by the Israelis free of charge.

Every major US computing firm (Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Intel, Google etc) maintains an R & D center in Israel - per capita R & D in Israel is the highest in the world by along shot: They do so because it's cheaper here and the Israelis are good at it. What applies to computing also applies to arms. The Israelis use the arms credits they receive to build co-manufacturing and R & D agreements.  In addition many armies round the world use the Israelis as a model ("I'll have what they are having") so that US sales to Israel generate a lot of follow on sales to other states. Israeli use of US weaponry demonstrates its effectiveness - and how to use it.

Basically the US is (to paraphrase President Johnson) "better off with Israel inside the tent pissing out then outside the tent pissing in".

If your assumption is that the USA has no interest and gains nothing from supporting Israel then its very easy to be drawn into a world view which assumes mythical "Jewish power"  and the "Jewish lobby" is the entire cause of US support for Israel. My view is that US support is the product of circumstance and that the lobby, such as it is, merely enhances that support and makes it harder to change direction. It isn't the cause of US support for Israel and in fact the peak of Jewish power in the USA was in the Fifties when US government ties with Israel were quite minimal.

Finally I should mention that the highest recipients of international aid per capita are a variety of small Pacific Island states, but if you rule them out then the highest recipients per-capita are the Palestinians - and by a large margin. See  the Palestinians receive aid from a huge variety of nations.  World Bank data does not include military aid so it is probably larger in reality. The Israelis get their aid almost exclusively from the USA, almost exclusively as military aid, and receive less per person (though not by a huge margin) then the Palestinians.  Afghans receive more per person the the Israelis: see

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Arendt, Herzl, settlements and the Jewish response to antisemitism

What would Herzl and Hannah Arendt have to say about the settlements if they were alive today?
A key principal for Herzl's movement was that Jewish immigration had to be "secured by public law". Zionism was not a pirate movement, seeking to occupy land, but one that worked with the authorities both local and international and sought formal approval for its actions.  All land was legally purchased and Ottoman approval was sought for migration.  The movement focused on winning international approval and its leaders were democratically elected. This policy paid off, first with the Balfour Declaration and later with the League of Nation's creation of the Mandate for Palestine.  Would Herzl have approved of the West Bank settlements? I would guess that he wouldn't: the settlements are not supported by international law, there is a great deal of dubious land seizure and they are contrary to the democratic principals on which Herzl built the Zionist movement. Having said that, the sovereign power in the West Bank is the state of Israel, which supports most settlements (although some are built without permisison by "wild cat" groups), so in that respect they are at least partially secured by public law.

Although Arendt flirted with Zionism and was Jewish, she opposed nationalism and was no Zionist. Arendt was highly critical of Jewish authorities behaviour during the Holocaust:

"Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this
leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for
one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish
people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been
chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly
have been between four and half and six million people".

Arendt may be wrong in what she says, and insensitive to the limited choices faced by Jews during this period, but there is a similarity between saying that settlements "must be secured by public law" and trying to work with the Nazis. In a sense what she describes is no different from the policies encouraged by Herzl, and which ultimately won the Jews a state.  By the way, most Jewish leaders were arbitrarily appointed by the Nazis and none were known Zionists. Some may have helped save Jews.

The thing is that the settlers, by ignoring the international community and the Israeli state, are working in accordance with the principals Arendt seems to be advising. So in that sense, Arendt's thinking is closer to settler groups then to liberal-Zionism. In the end, the Jews in Nazi Europe were caught in a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation and Arendt's criticism is not the product of a detailed analysis.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The PLO are not the sole legimate representatives of the Palestinian people and can't negotiate a treaty with Israel.

The PLO has official status at the UN as the "legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people.  In the Seventies it was granted observer status at the UN and it represents the Palestinians in international forums and negotiations with the Israelis.

Before the Nineties there was a logic to this. The PLO was a body composed of a group of different Palestinian organizations and had Arab League support.  The Palestinian's were either dispersed or under Israeli rule and had no means of electing a representative and the UN gave that status to the PLO.

Today, however, things have changed. First of all the Palestinians held free elections in 2004.  The result of those elections was an indisputable victory not of the PLO, but of Hamas and as such Hamas has the best claim to being the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Secondly, Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and Gaza is governed by Hamas. That means that decision making in Gaza is purely by the Palestinians without any outside intervention.  While we may not approve of the means by which the Hamas took over in Gaza, and the failure to hold further elections, that is arguably an internal Palestinian affair and despite the problematics Hamas is the only Palestinian group which can claim to represent the Palestinians.  At the very least, it is no longer possible to claim that the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinians or that its decisions are binding on the Palestinians.

It could be argued that in the eyes of the UN the PLO remains the sole representative but in the absence of a fresh decision confirming their status, I would say that is contentious.

At present Israel and the PLO are negotiating a "final solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under US guidance, but without Hamas having some role in those negotiations, it seems to me that these negotiations cannot be said to be taking place in good faith.

A lot of people feel that Netanyahu is not negotiating in good faith and doesn't really want a result. That may well be the case, but the truth is that the negotiations in their present format are farcical when they don't include the only truly self-governing and independent section of the Palestinian people.  As long as that is the case, nobody is acting in good faith.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Salif Keita and BDS, from Alabama to Jerusalem

A few weeks ago I noticed that Salif Keita was due to perform at King David's citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was both surprised and delighted.
I was surprised because Salif Keita is from Mali, a predominantly Moslem country on the edge of the Sahara where there is both an Islamic insurgency and Al Qaeda presence. Keita was also once a minister in the government of Mali. Salif Keita is an albino, which apparently are a group who face discrimination in some parts of Africa and he works to prevent discrimination against albinos.
I was delighted because Keita is one of my favorite African musicians.  His music combines modernity with ancient African themes.  I told my partner that while I would not be willing to spend 600 shekels (150 US dollars) to see the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney (as they are today), I would be willing to spend that much to see Salif Keita in King David's citadel.
The citadel is a structure just inside the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem which was built by King Herod about 2000 years ago.

Unfortunately, the timing of his show didn't suit my schedule with kids etc. so I had to leave it and I forgot about it until yesterday when I discovered from the Engage (anti-racist campagin against anti-Semitism) website, that Mr Keita had cancelled the performance and published a letter on his web page explaining that he was doing so because of  threats and because he wished to protect his work for Albinos. You can see the letter on his facebook page, or here
Salif Keita's letter explaining concert cancelation
 I have no problem with that, as I said I was surprised he would play here at all, and if he doesn't it won't affect how I vote or view the world. I just accept it as one of those things.

What struck me was the debate on his Facebook page, which is rather sad.  Some were saying the boycott was anti-Semitic, others that criticism of them as anti-Semite as an "attempt to silence debate".  There was no attempt to reach out or promote peace and understanding. I saw that some supporters of boycotting Israel were comparing it to the bus boycott in Alabama and after reflecting on this I wanted to point out the difference between non-violence and boycotts as practised by Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King and the BDS movement.
First both Dr King and Gandhi steadfastly and absolutely opposed the use of violence. This is not true of the BDS movement (boycott divestment and sanctions).
Second boycotts as used by both Gandhi and Dr King were first and foremost actions taken by those on the recieving end of discrimination. One of the problematics of BDS is that it is not Palestinians who are using non-violence or boycotts, it is predominantly a European movement targetting Israel, while ignoring the history of European-Jewish interaction, in which boycotts were a means of persecution. Dr King always spoke out very clearly against anti-Semitism, even saying that "Israel's right to exist in security is incontestable" which the BDS doesn't.

I suppose BDS supporters conflate themselves with the Palestinians and think that by acting in supprt they become part of a struggle they admire. Instead they are complicating the situation of the Palestinians and turning Israeli foreign policy into a struggle against anti-Semitism. The Palestinian's popularity in some respects is their achilles heal, preventing them from seeking or sustaining any peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Incidentally a Rabbi, Abraham Heschel, was at the front of many of the civil rights marches. Right next to Dr King (second from the right in this picture).

Monday, September 16, 2013

The inevitable defeat of inevitable victory in the Middle East

In 1948 the Palestinians were sure they couldn't fail, they outnumbered the Jews two to one and had the support of all the Arab states. In fact the Jews had nowhere to run and were so scared of failure that they gave the war everything they had. The sense that Israel's situation was precarious remained strong after 1948  and in the run-up to the 1967 war, Nasser's doom laden pronouncements led to widespread fear in Israel.  Again it turned out to be the opposite: Arab overconfidence fed the Israeli dread of defeat and led to opposite results.
In 1973 the situation reversed: The Israelis thought they were undefeatable and the Arabs were sure they couldn't win. Although the Israelis didn't lose the war, it was the closest Israel has come to defeat.

Because many Arabs assumed victory was inevitable sooner or later, they didn't work for that victory and were at a disadvantage. Because so many Israelis thought the Arabs might be right, they were motivated to try harder. Thus inevitable victory fed defeat.

Six months ago Assad's defeat looked invitable, but right now its hard to say what will happen in Syria. Latest reports say 50% of the opposition to Assad are "global Jihad' volunteers. With so many Jihadi forces gathering, Assad may find friends in new places, expeically if he dumps his Sarin collection.

Things may be reversing again. The Arab states are a mess, but given the way things tend to fall upside down in the Middle East, I would hestiate to make any predictions.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hebron and my basic training in the Israeli Army

This post is a continuation of my experiences doing basic training in the Israeli army in 1994.

As part of the basic training, we had to spend a six hour night shift guarding the base. To make it easier we were allocated partners for the shift and I was paired with the only Haredi Jew in our group of new immigrants doing three week basic training.
I no longer remember his name, the Russians liked him because his wife was Russian and he stood out.  He spoke Hebrew with a strong Yiddish inflection but the key thing about him was that he lived in the heart of Hebron.  Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with Jewish settlers right in its heart.  There are I believe, about 400 settlers living there and they are regarded as among the most extreme settlers in the West Bank and a source of constant provocations and tension with the Palestinian population.

Our lone Haredi told us he was doing military service because it would allow him to get additional child support (he had five children) and to carry a weapon.  He also saw it as his duty to educate us about Hebron and constantly explained that Hebron, or rather the "Tomb of the Patriarchs" in the heart of Hebron is the burial site of Abraham and other forefathers (and mothers) and the second most holy site in Judaism (it is also sacred to Moslems).  All this was recounted with a typical slight sing-song Yiddish inflection.
During the peace negotiations with the Palestinians in the 'Nineties a Jewish terrorist opened fire in the tomb, killing 29 Palestinians.

During the six hours that we guarded the base, I told him about my family history and he told me about himself. To my astonishment he turned out to be a former Irish-Catholic postman from Brooklyn. This revelation caused me to take another look at the man. I suddenly noticed that he was taller than me - and among the rather short Russian Jews, I was noticeably tall (in England I am average height).  He was also red-headed.
The next day in the dining room I couldn't keep my new information to myself. "x is a convert" I told someone next to me, "he's a former Irish Catholic from Brooklyn". Everyone who heard this was stunned and you could hear a buzz as the information travelled across the dining room, like waves of grass bending in the wind.

I have since learnt that Rabbinical Judaism regards it as a grave sin to remind a convert of their origins and they are quite right not the least because it is very difficult to convert to Judaism and requires a year of study. I sometimes remember the incident and feel ashamed of my action but with it I feel a sense of annoyance that someone who was not born into Judaism should act in a way that makes life difficult for those of us who had less choice in their religion.

I have never visited Hebron or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but I should add two important facts about the tomb, which contributed tot he Jewish extremism round it.  First of all it is one of what were known to the Jews as the four holy cities (Tsafed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Hebron) in which the Jews maintained a presence across the centuries. In 1929 there were riots in Palestine and 70 Hebron Jews were killed and the rest forced to leave.  The issue was a celebrated cause among right-wing Jews.  The other pertinent fact is that Jews were banned from entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs from the late 1300s until the Israeli conquest in 1967 and despite that apparently maintained their connection with the site, worshipping on the steps at one of the entrances.