Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cheap electrical kettles and rabbis.

If you live in Tel-Aviv and like to hang out in electrical stores and take an interest in cheap electric kettles, then you have probably heard of "Kennedy" a firm whose cheap kettles are in all the major hardware stores and have a remarkable capacity for lasting only slightly longer then the guarantee. My habit of buying cheap kettles and toasters means I am always buying new ones when the last cheapo disintegrates. Kennedy rule the cheapo market and are even advertised on the rear ends of buses. My last one I bought in a petrol-station (gas-station if you're American) where for 100 shekels I got a kettle, a toaster and an waffle maker.

The kettle unexpectedly sprang a leak before its guarantee had expired and every effort to make a cup of tea was accompanied by a small puddle round the bottom, so I decided to take it to be repaired. The petrol station directed me to a shop in Haredi Bnei Brak which provides the maintenance for Kennedy, so I put the kettle in my bicycle saddle-bag and pedalled out to Bnei Brak.

I didn't expect to see a huge repair centre but I wasn't expecting what I got. It was a tiny little shop, in which there was a very elderly man with Parkinsons. The shop clearly hadn't been cleaned for years, and although it was an electrical repair shop, some of the light fixtures didn't work. I could tell it was the right place though, because it was packed with boxes bearing the label "Kennedy".

The old man looked at the kettle and told me the section which measured the water level was leaking, he said it wasn't covered by the guarantee but for 15 shekels (4 dollars / 3 Euros) he could fix it. He fixed it on the spot.

Opposite the shop was a Haredi book store and I had just read a history of the Jews in Byzantine Israel which used the Talmud and Gemara as its source and I wanted to have a look, so I wandered over. Outside the shop had a large set of wooden honeycombs outside each of which contained a photo of a Rabbi. The photos were being sold for five shekels a shot. They were almost identical, all dressed in black, all with black hats, only the length of their beards and cleanliness of their cloaks and beards varied. In quite a few you could tell they hadn't washed their coats for a while. Inside the shop, the books were mostly recent orthodox publications, usually very cheaply printed and there wasn't a very large selection. I couldn't find a copy of the Talmud or Gemrara which I could use and what there was looked like it was more intended for show then for study.

So I headed home with my fixed kettle. Which has worked fine ever since.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shani's first birthday

Today is Shani's first birthday.
She now knows five words, all of them in Hebrew. Kova (hat) which she uses not just for hats but also for items of clothing (most of them will go on your head if you try) and bottle tops. Kadoor (ball)which she uses for anything round, including fruit and vegetables. Or (light) she uses for lights, light switches, ceiling fans, the sun and the moon. Hav Hav (Hebrew for woof woof) means dog and any animal. This morning she pointed at a pigeon and said "hav hav". She can also identify images of hav havs and kadoors and says kadoor when when seeing basketball or football on the TV.

Abba (father) she uses for me and (not sure how this happened) for mobile phones.

We spent the last ten days in Italy where she produced a new word, her first verb: Havi (bring / give). She doesn't conjugate it properly but there is no doubt about the meaning. She'll finish hr bottle and then point at it and say "Havi!" sending me scuttling to the kitchen, with her in one arm to make her a new bottle.

Being an Israeli child she also knows a few gesticulations: she can point at things and pat her head when saying "Kova!".

She may be confusing Abba with mobile phones because I recently bought a new one and have been playing with it. For a while I had David Bowies' song "Ground control to Maj

or Tom" as my ringtone but someone at work started joking about my being an astronaut so I changed it to the more combative "Joshua fit [fought] the battle of Jericho" sung by Mahalia Jackson.

During our visit to Italy we went to see the Jewish Museum in the Rome synagogue, which is one of the most magnificent synagogues I have seen. They have an excellent exhibition on the Jews of Rome, which is incidentally far better than that shown in the London Jewish museum, although using less fancy displays. Perhaps the London Jewish museum should be in the Bevis Marks synagogue.

It was hard being in the museum as Shani wanted to touch the displays and drum on the chairs, but I managed to contain her until we were taken on a guided tour of the synagogue. Here everyone was asked to wear a Yarmulke and Shani started shouting "Kova!" Kova!" much to my embarrassment. To further compound the situation as I held Shani, my cellphone went off and stated going "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho...".

At that point I gave up and walked out. I then realized Shani needed a nappy change so I went into the garden and started preparing to change her when a whole crowd of people came out. Realizing I might be causing offence I totally left the synagogue area and changed her on the street outside.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Call the post office and order four gas masks.

A couple of days ago I came home from work tired after a long day and flopped in front of the TV. When I do this I normally spend about fifteen minutes flicking through some twenty stations and don't find anything I want to see. I than do a re-run, flicking through the same twenty stations for another fifteen minutes before realizing there is just nothing I want to watch and giving up.
On this occasion I found something. It was an American film about Auschwitz and I landed on the channel showing it, just as they were showing in graphic detail the work of the dreaded Sonder-commandos. The Sonder-commandos cleaned the gas-chambers and loaded the bodies into the crematoria. They also guided the Jews into the "showers" while reassuring them that they were just showers and later sorted through their possessions.
In return for this despicable work, they got fantastic food, good wine and a little bit of grace coupled with the certain knowledge that the Nazis would never let them survive. Every now and then the Nazis would just kill the lot and find replacements.
Shani (now 11 months old) was crawling over me while I watched this horror, unable to bring myself to carry on flicking. What brought it to an end was Noam (12) coming home. I didn't want the responsibility of having to explain what was happening and didn't fancy him watching it either, so I turned it off.

The next morning before I went to work, I went to the post office for some reason. There I found myself faced with a leaflet warning me that the government was distributing gas masks to the population until the 31st of August. I suddenly realized that it was the 31st of August and that if I was going to get gas masks for my family I had to go and pick them up that day.

Now, our apartment isn't very big and we have a storage space issue. There are occasional arguments over whether some old pair of shoes or clothing can sufficiently justify its existence to retain precious wardrobe space. Getting gas-masks means permanently storing three boxes and for a baby you get a tent like structure which will probably permanently burst the wardrobe, so it required some thought.

The next day was the first day of school and I was busy rushing around with Noam getting last minute stuff but, needless to say, after the horror of the night before I didn't feel able to resist. And so, thirty minutes before the end of gas mask distribution, I decided to have a go and rung up the distribution center. I discovered that for 25 shekels (about 7 US dollars) they will send the entire family's masks by post but then a snag came up. It seems that in the nineties I was given gas masks which somehow vanished in the course of my divorce and so they would fine me before they gave me new ones, unless I could find and return the originals (otherwise its free).

So I rung my ex-wife who said she had them and asked if I would be willing to get her a gas mask as well. I said I would return the old ones but felt that now that we were divorced, she should handle her own gas mask requirements. Anyway it emerged that while it is no longer possible to personally go and pick up a gas mask I can still call the post office and have them delivered and so I am able to continue prevaricating and preserve my precious wardrobe space. Perhaps I will wait for the results of the peace talks with the Palestinians before I order us all gas masks.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Noam playing the congas at an end-of-school party

Noam and Nir at kita vav 1 end party.MP4
Noam has officially finished primary school and his class held a celebration party at which the children staged performances.  The last to appear were Noam and Nir, Noam is playing the congas and Nir singing. They will be continuing in the same school next year as the school includes a 'middle school'.

There is a second clip below of a different song, Noam is only just visible. I guess drummers stay in the background.
Noam and nir and Shir kita vav1.MP4

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How I won and lost a global scoop

The Internet editing work at the Jerusalem Post is shift work and once a week, most weeks, I have to do a night shift.
I volunteered for the Friday night shift which struck me as the least disruptive to my life though I am now having second thoughts about it.  
On Friday I drove to Jerusalem and when I arrived was told that a ship called the 'Rachel Corrie' was due to try and break the blockade on Gaza the following morning.   We were still in the midst of the international crisis brought on by the unfortunate effort to seize a Turkish ship by lowering commandos on ropes which had first led to commandos being captured by the Turks and then to nine Turks being killed as other commandos rushed to rescue them.  At least that's what I think happened. 
Apart from a security guard, I was the only person in the Jerusalem Post building and keeping the site going alone.
Part of the internet editing job is checking the "talkbacks", the comments readers leave on articles and one side effect of the raid on the Turkish ship was a huge rise in the number of talkbacks.  When I arrived there were over a thousand which needed to be checked to see if they contained racism, slander, libel, rude words or any of a list of reasons for disallowing them.
Most of the comments on the Jerusalem Post's website are not of a very high calibre. Some of the authors you learn to recognize as 'regulars'.  There is one man who routinely calls Israelis Nazis and who I delete on sight, there is another who writes very long comments which are usually just acceptable: the problem being that you have to read all the way through her long and irritating comments to establish if she is indeed making acceptable remarks.  Others get into arguments which sometimes include trading insults (I delete these).
Other than that not much happens in Israel on Friday night so there is little news. 

The main items I put up were that the 'Rachel Corrie' had changed course and was trying to reach Gaza by sailing along the coast from Egypt.
The ship was flying an Irish flag so the Irish government tried to negotiate a deal, and agreed with Israel that they could unload their equipment at Ashdod, and then have it shipped into Gaza by Israel, with observers monitoring everything along the way.  The people on the ship rejected the deal but made a counter offer at about 4 am: a Malaysian NGO announced they were prepared to allow the UN to check the cargo. 
I checked the Malaysian website.  It emerged that a Malaysian NGO was co-sponsoring the ship and the ship was also flying a Malaysian flag and carrying Malaysians on board. The Malaysian site had a "twitter feed" from the ship so I started monitoring it.

Twitter is a website that allows people to send SMS messages from mobile phones which are then displayed on the Internet.  You can, of course, also get them sent to your mobile phone. Twitter achieved fame during the massive terror attack in Mumbai when people who were trapped in their hotel rooms, with terrorists outside, found they could communicate with the outside world via Twitter, so it was possible to follow the terror attack "live" by reading their 'Twitter feeds'.

At 5 am I checked the Malaysian site and found the Twitter feed from the ship was saying their radar was jammed and Israeli ships were trailing them.  I put it on the website as a news item.

At 5:30 am the twitter feed announced that the Israelis had boarded and that everybody was safe and unharmed.

At this point the twitter feed suddenly disappeared from the Malaysian site. So I checked the twitter website where I found the feed.  I posted the news on the Jerusalem Post's website as a huge breaking news item.  Feeling pleased I high-fived myself and then went to the toilet.

When I returned Twitter had exploded with items saying "Jerusalem Post says Rachel Corrie taken!".  I could no longer find anything on Twitter related to the Rachel Corrie which wasn't reporting what I had written.   Meanwhile the Malaysians were saying that the twitter information was unconfirmed and had removed it from their site.

I hastily added that my report was unconfirmed. Across the globe news agencies were saying that "there are unconfirmed reports that the Rachel Corrie has been boarded, but this is not the case, the ship is being trailed by three Israeli warships".    On the other hand the "Free Gaza" website who were issuing press releases on behalf of the blockade-breakers also announced "Rachel Corrie taken".   By that time it was 7 am and my shift was over.

I told my replacement what was going on.  He nodded grimly and made a comment about beginner's errors and I Ieft the building to drive home.

As far as I can tell the Rachel Corrie was in fact surrounded by three Israeli warships which sailed alongside it for several hours and eventually, Israeli soldiers climbed on board, after reaching an agreement with the people on the ship to do so peacefully.

My main lesson from all this was not to trust Twitter as a news source and not to trust NGOs as a news source: especially the anti-Israeli ones.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Tel-Aviv Post: Breaking news editor at the Jerusalem Post

I have got a job as a "breaking news editor" at the Jerusalem Post.  Twenty years ago this would have been my dream job and it still goes quite a long way. Basically you spend all day listening to, and watching the news and then post it on the website.  Some of the material is just feeds from Associated Press, and others are articles by Jerusalem Post staff which you post to the website, but a certain amount needs to be written by the editors and a lot of the AP stuff needs adjusting to reflect Israeli interests. also the editors decide what goes where and how important things are.  Oh and you get to approve the talkbacks.

At the moment the Post offices are in Jerusalem, and boy are they filthy. They've had the same offices since 1932 (when they were called the Palestine Post).  Outside there are loading bays which I assume were where once the paper would have gone onto lorries (trucks) every day for delivery round Israel.  But times have changed and the post is no longer printed there and its readership have mostly moved to HaAretz.  However I am told the website gets 200,000 clicks a day.  According to this site, they get 500,000 unique visitors per month (that is different individuals accessing the site).  The paper version sells 12,000 a day and 40,000 at weekends (See my source). It used to sell 70,000 a day. Apparently the site is popular with evangelical christians in the USA. 

The Post is supposed to be moving to Tel-Aviv next month, but for the moment I have to drive out to Jerusalem on my motorbike which is now getting a bit old for this kind of journey. Basically the time has come and possibly gone when I should get a new one.

Fortunately the Post's offices are near the entrance to Jerusalem, so there are no traffic issues once I get there. Over the years the neighbourhood where the offices are located has become haredi.  My guess is they can sell the offices to make way for apartment blocks and make a bit of money on the move.  Anyway the general location (and the poor wages) means that I am finding it hard to find somewhere to eat lunch and yesterday I wandered into a mall where everyone was haredi.  That is to say everyone but me and the Arab security guard at the entrance was wearing side curls, black silk jackets etc.  The women were all pushing prams followed by chains of children. It wasn't like a stetl, it was like an alternative universe, imagine going into your local shopping centre and finding everyone dressed in almost identical black 17th century outfits  - and unshaven. It is a little threatening at times, though you quickly realize there is no reason to be afraid. 

For some reason British-English is a common language round there and I even saw someone driving a car with UK number plates.   You also hear a certain amount of Yiddish and see children playing and talking Yiddish, though I would say that Hebrew and English are the dominant tongues.  Maybe the time will come when all haredis speak English, or they will create a Jewish version of English (Yiddlish?) rather like Ebonics.  Over time it seems to me that nearly all the world's Jews are moving to either live in Israel or the English speaking world.  At present 80% live in Israel and the USA.

The Jerusalem Post is like a UN of the English speaking world. You find yourself sitting next to an Australian, an American and a Canadian.  There is an Englishman but he's leaving as he doesn't want to move out of Jerusalem.  

One good thing about going to Jerusalem is that the city is so bizarre its liking going to another country.   So several times a week  I get to feel like I've been abroad.

P.S.  If you want to read more about my time at the Post see How I won and lost a global scoop


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Religion and Socialism in the Middle East conflict

It used to be, that when Arabs and Jews went to war, socialist Jews would fight socialist Arabs. Kibbutzniks were disproportionately represented among the commanders of the Israel Defence Forces, PLO factions were all called the Popular Front and the parties which ruled the Arab world described themselves as socialist. Israel was totally under the thumb of the Labour party and in the Six Day War it was socialist Nasser against the Kibbutznik Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.  

Now that Middle East socialism seems to be in terminal decline, the religious have taken over.  Israeli officers facing Sunni fundamentalists in Gaza or Shia fundamentalists in Southern Lebanon are likely to live on the West-Bank and share a devout belief in a single invisible deity with their bitter enemies. However there are differences, for whereas the Islamists are likely to represent the most fanatical Moslems of their respective peoples, the most fanatical of Jews - The Haredis - steer clear of military service.  

Eshkol and Nasser were, of course, also nationalists as are the settlers and Islamists so in that sense there has been continuity in the conflict. What has changed over time is the identity of the most extreme nationalists.  Where once the Nationalist Socialists dreamt of Empires that resurrected ancient values now Religious Nationalists seek to restore the Caliph (Osama Bin Laden and Hamas)  and return the Islamic world to its stature in the post-crusader times while the most extreme Jewish nationalists dream of rebuilding the Jewish temple.   

The Haredis (As Ultra-Orthodox Jews are known) have managed to avoid military service and have tried to steer clear of nationalism but this may be beginning to change.  Reports say that within the next twenty years secular Israeli Jews will become a minority and the pressure on Haredis to contribute more to the military is growing.  

The army in Israel is its great melting-pot. After the mass migration in the fifties, the major fault line of Israeli society was the Sephardi - Ashkenazis cultural and economic divide.  Military services helped limit the damage, it was the first point of contact and, under conditions of danger and with few women to cause rivalries, military buddies crossed ethnic lines.  Today the Sephardi-Ashkenazi issue remains sensitive, but a growing percentage of Israelis are the product of mixed marriages and the conflict is clearly healing.
In the nineties Russian immigrants became a noticeable presence in the army at a time when there were complaints that too many weren't Jewish, that 'their' culture was undermining Israeli values. However the propensity of  boys getting killed on the front to have Russian names made it clear that the new immigrants had brought with them Soviet second world war traditions and were giving more than their fare share.  Today is the anniversary of the Nazi surrender and hundreds of Soviet veterans will be marching in Jerusalem,while wearning Jackets covered in improbable quantities of medals.  

The two major fault lines of Israeli society are now the Arab-Jewish divide and the Ultra-Orthodox - Secular divide.   A recent article in HaAretz warned that within twenty years these two groups may form the majority in Israeli society and there is concern that the military burden may become the burden of a minority.  As a result there have been calls to ensure that Haredi children learn English and Maths, while the army is putting together special programs where Haredi men can serve in the army without having to abandon their lifestyle. It is still too early to tell, but we may yet see the most fanatical Jews fighting the most fanatical Moslems. 

Although nationalism is clearly the major force in the conflict, it is not purely nationalist but also religious.  Once the socialists started resolving their differences, the orthodox took over the conflict taking it to new places.  I believe that any efforts to achieve peace need to take that into account and seek to incorporate religious ideals in gestures of peace.  


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Am I using the right site?

There is a small visitor counter on this blog which you can see lower down the page on the right hand side.  At the moment its been viewed about 320 times in a couple of months which is hardly a very impressive statistic.  So I've started thinking about trying to promote it and am wondering if I should change the blog's location. In the mean time is pretty easy to use and I don't want to start moving around without a good reason.

I've registered with who want this code in the blog: 2C6XKHE5EY5D  So there it is guys.   Lets see if I can't find a few more readers...


Monday, April 26, 2010

The Journey of a Lifetime: my grandmother's escape on the Trans-Siberian railway

My grandmother, Betty Löwenstein (maiden name Ehrlich), escaped Germany by fleeing east and caught one of the last Trans-Siberian trains before the Nazi invasion of Russia. Her aim was to join her brothers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Family legend has it that as she caught the train to leave Germany, a woman handed her a baby to take with her.
The distance from Berlin to Reading is about 6,000 kilometers. The path Betty took to reach her destination was in excess of 24,000 kilometers.
I should add that her husband committed suicide in 1932. Though there may be some question marks over exactly how that happened to him. I have his death certificate here.

My father left Germany on the 28th of August 1939. three days before the invasion of Poland. He was fifteen and flew to Britain - my grandmother told my mother she sent him by plane to ensure that he arrived safely. They were due to meet up and travel together from Britain to the USA, but she was delayed and his departure was urgent. On the day of the invasion she tried to leave Germany for Britain but was turned back as war had been declared. She remained trapped in Germany for another year which she spent trying to obtain visas for a journey out of Europe to the East. 
I don't know when she decided to leave Germany from the East, but in April she got a visa for the USSR, 9 months after the start of the war. In May Germany conquered Holland and Belgium and invaded France (which fell by June 1940). 
On the 10th of May 1940 she got a visa for the USA. Getting a visa for the USA was extremely hard in those days, especially for Jews, but her brothers had migrated a couple of years earlier. 
US Visa, issued May 10 1940

 She got her Japanese visa in Hamburg on July 3rd 1940 and the next day (4th of July) she got a visa for "Manchuko": Japanese-occupied China.

Japanese visa, issued 3 July 1940
My grandmother wrote an account of her journey as part of her citizenship training for the USA and I have attached it as a jpg at the end of this blog. 

In her account, she says she travelled to Koenigsburg, now called Kaliningrad. The left visa page in the image above has her exit stamp and shows she flew from Koenigsburg airport on the 3rd of August 1940 (Wikipedia says it is one of the oldest passenger airports in the world). She flew from there to Moscow because she hadn't managed to obtain a Latvian visa: The USSR had invaded Latvia 5 weeks earlier in  late June 1940. 
I checked this journey on the Eurorail site: They recommend a train to Prague where you take a train to Warsaw, from Warsaw you take a train to Vilnius in Latvia and from there you can get a train to Kaliningrad. It takes two days.
1,000km train ride followed by a 1,000km,  7 hour flight in a thunderstorm  

Soviet visa, issued 11 April 1940

From Moscow she took the Trans-Siberian railway - a 9,000 kilometer journey. She wasn't allowed to take any money out of Germany (there was a ban on Jews taking money or goods) so she paid for the whole thing in advance and was given vouchers to use on the train. Jews who had a visa to leave Germany could count on help from Jewish charities who would pay their travel and provide for them on the way.

The mathematician Kurt Godel followed a similar route at roughly the same time. He wasn't Jewish so he went through Latvia. Who knows maybe they met on the train. My grandmother took the Trans-Manchurian line (see a map) and left the train at Harbin in Manchuko (Japanese occupied China) while Godel seems to have taken another branch which arrived at Vladivostok. The Trans-Siberian took her 9 days. She says conditions on the train were harsh and alleviated only by the incredible scenery (see the modern site).

There were a lot of Jews living in Harbin. One of them was called Olmert and his grandson became prime-minister of Israel. There is a lovely internet exhibition on the Jews of Harbin and there is a museum in Harbin telling the Jewish story.
Manchuko visa, issued 4 July 1940

Betty Lowenstein says there was cholera in Harbin in 1940, and that it was killing 150 people every day. We now know that the Japanese biological warfare program ("Unit 731") was based in Harbin and they were artificially inducing cholera. See

She travelled from Harbin overland for two and a half weeks to "Fusan", which I think is Fusan in South Korea (now called Busan), then Japanese occupied. That's over 1,200 kilometers through Japanese occupied China. A couple of other people who took the route also went this way, so I assume it was a standard route. Apparently there was a single train from Harbin in Northern China which went down to Busan at the the Southern tip of Korea. See

From Busan she sailed to Kobe in Japan. Apparently there was a Jewish community in Kobe and these helped Jews arriving from Germany. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was providing funds for Jewish refugees (though she says nothing about this), so once she got to Kobe she was safe. 
1,250km train ride from Harbin to southern tip of Korea, followed by 500km journey to Kobe
In 2021, a signboard was erected in Kobe commemorating the Jews who escaped through Japan: See also

Betty left Kobe on the 15th of August 1940, arriving in Seattle two weeks later. I found the manifest of the ship she arrived on. It was called the Heian Maru (it has a Wikipedia page) and arrived 29 August 1940, about half the passengers were Jewish refugees. She gave her occupation as 'Housewife' and her nationality as 'German'. Jewish passengers often gave their nationality as "Jew" or "Hebrew". She evidently had a strong German identity, if after all those years of persecution she still called herself a German.
Manifest of the ship she arrived on., look for Betty Lowenstein on the list
The date of her arrival in the USA was exactly one year and one day after her son Heinz arrived in England.
8,000km journey from Kobe to Seattle

From Seattle, Betty got a bus to Reading, Pennsylvania. I looked this bus journey up on the Greyhound website. Today (2010) its a three day journey costing 234 dollars. Greyhound puts the distance as 5,000 kilometers. Seattle is on the Pacific coast while Reading is close to New York on the Atlantic coast.

I assume her brothers were in Reading.
Altogether, the journey of a lifetime. Perhaps one day I can recreate it.
The distance from Berlin to Reading is about 6,000 kilometers. The path Betty took to reach her destination was in excess of 24,000 kilometers. 
 5,000km bus journey across the USA
The text she wrote is undated. She was naturalized in 1946, and the essay appears to have been written as part of her preparations for American citizenship. So it probably dates from between 1941 to 1946 and is reasonably accurate. 
My grandmother with her precise documentation has left something for posterity. Her account of her journey is so remarkable that it should probably be typed and uploaded to the internet.

Betty had sent her son to England on the 28th of August 1939, intending to join him three days later. Instead it took her a year to reach the USA, arriving on the 19th of August 1940. 
In June 1941 Germany invaded the USSR and this route closed. Six months later Japan attacked the USA and the Pacific end must have been cut. 

For further information and account of how her son was saved see This is also a remarkable story. 

This page from the US Holocaust Museum tells how 2,200 Polish Jews escaped over the Trans-Siberian:

A personal account by someone else who followed this route:

Betty Lowenstein's hand-typed account of her journey

More passport photos

Friday, April 16, 2010

Traffic Jams and Motorbikes

A few days ago I took my motorbike down to south Tel-Aviv today to get my seat repaired after someone slashed it.  There is a motorcycle upholsterer down there.  It would never have ocurred to me that such a person existed if I hadn't passed him by at some point.   His name is Sasson and he is one of the old school Russian immigrants. The new school came in the nineties, wear designer clothing and are ultra-cool but Sasson belongs to the generation that arrived in the seventies and grew up revering Stalin, wearing design-free clothes and thought gold teeth were the ultimate in cool. 

I once worked with a systems analyst from Bukhara (a city in Uzbekistan).  He was a charming man with a mouth full of gold teeth and we told him that if he got them replaced it would benefit his career, but he refused.  Apparently he felt taking ones perfectly good gold teeth out was too vain or something. 
Anyway Sasson has a glass eye, gold teeth and motorcycle seats in various states of repair hanging outside his "shop" which is really just a large garage-like room.  I selected the particular brand of fake leather I wanted for my up holstery and he gave me an old one he had lying around to use while he fixed it.  The cost was 200 shekels, or about 55 US dollars.
Today I went back to replace the seat. As I tried to drive to the motorway I found the Police blocking the way.  That happens occasionally in Israel.  Usually because someone has left a suspicious looking package in the road.  Assuming this was the case I got on the motorway from the next entrance where the road is narrow and even with a motorbike you find yourself struggling to get through the unusually heavy traffic.

Sasson only takes cash so I had to find a cashpoint which took a while because the first one I went to was no longer there and the second one was out of service. Only the third one worked.  Having got my new seat I though I would go and have a felafel at a particularly cheap place I like off Allenby and that's where things went badly wrong.  I found myself struggling through extremely heavy traffic.  In town even motorbikes can struggle because they are large and you have to take care not to scratch people and the gaps aren't quite wide enough to fit through.  It  would have been faster on a bicycle. Bicycles can also ignore traffic lights and one way systems in these conditions. 

Anyway I struggled to my 10 shekel felafel (3 dollars) and then struggled to get out of the city because the Police had cordoned off major exit roads.  What was going on?  For a moment I thought maybe there were some bombs going off but then a fellow motorcyclist explained.  It seems the Police in Israel haven't had enough action in recent years so they decided to make pretend.  In the middle of the rush hour they closed down major intersections and pretended there was a big terror attack taking place.  Tel-Aviv is pretty congested at the best of times but today was total chaos. Even on a motorcycle it took me twice as long as it should have done and spending your time struggling to slowly slalom round cars with a 200 kilogram motorcycle is no fun.  At least the temperature was a bearable 24 degrees centigrade.  In a couple of months it will be a lot hotter.   Actually I think you could have an Olympic sport involving Vespa drivers slaloming round moving cars. 

As I finally got into my neighbourhood I saw a police car whiz by on the empty road they had cordoned off.  Number M2.  M is for Mishtara (Police) so M2 is the second in command.  I bet he'd pay a lot of money just to have the numberplate M1. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

A fine democracy: Why Israel shouldn't change its voting system

Attack the Israeli political system and no one will disagree with you. While all but a few loonies agree that democracy (pretty much any democracy) is preferable to dictatorship  (of any sort) most people who bother to voice an opinion will tell you that the Israeli proprtional representation system is flawed.
All political systems are flawed, presumably because human beings are flawed, and democracies, whichever mechanism they use to take decisions, have flaws that reflect the different methods they use.

In ancient Athens everyone gathered in a stadium and the majority of decisions were taken using a one man one vote system.  If you ignore the fact that women, slaves and children didn't vote it was still problematic because large groups of people are prone to behave like football fans and get over excited or follow demagogues.  This way makes it hard to take quick decisions or deal with the kind of society where everybody has to work: you need slaves and wives who can free you to spend all day hanging out in the stadium voting and watching football.

Most of the people who don't like the Israeli system want Israel to be more like other countries and these people tend to assume that if we use another countries political system then we will be more like that country, for example if Israel had a presidential system then we would have a seat on the security council and could bomb Iraq and Iran at will.  The truth is we would still be a two bit little country that pisses the hell out of everyone else and just because Netanyahu is called "Mr President" wont turn him into Ben-Gurion or Clintonת. 
In fact the US system has major problems.  The men who designed it, back in 1776, were trying to ensure no dictators took over and they made the country virtually ungovernable with two parliaments (congress and the senate), a president and supreme court none of which can take orders from the other.  The result 225 years later is that it is impossible to give the Americans decent health care or stop them buying guns.  In addition the US system of directlly electing the president means that the country is periodically ruled by men like George Bush who, if he were given countrol of a small country with many enemies, could cause a major disaster.  

British Jews like say, Bernard Lewis, naturally prefer a system like Britain's. According to the British Daily Telegraph this week, Israel's electoral system is a major barrier to Middle East peace. Presumably they prefer the Syrian system where 99.9% vote for one party.   In this case the assumption is that if we make each member of Knesset represent a constituency then things would improve. Members of Knesset would address each other as "the honourable member for Umm El-Fahm north", instead of having 120 seats in the Knesset one would have about 60 and it would always look full (the British parliament has 646 members fighting for 440 available places to sit), we would have a seat on the security council and could rule India and most of the Middle East without actually having to have the natives in Parliament.  Ideally we would also play more cricket.
The advantage of the British system is that (like in Israel) the elected representatives control who is the prime minister, so George Bush is unlikely to get elected or stay in power.  On the other hand a poorly educated, unelected and very rich elderly woman (eg the Queen) actually decides which memeber of parliament should be the prime minister and the British have a second parliament full of unelected "lords" whose great-great-grandmother had an affair with the monarch resulting in great-great-grand daddy getting a nice piece of turf to play cricket on.  Oh and grandpa had extensive slave plantations in the Carribean and ruled Kenya.  I guess in Israel a House of Lords would be full of retired generals, ex-members of knesset, rabbis and businessman who paid for the privelege (as they do in Britain).  It hardly sounds like a great deal. 

In Britain people have been trying for years to change the system which makes it impossible for anybody except members of the two main parties to get elected.  40% of Britons don't bother to vote (turnout is lower then in Israel) and many of the votes of those who do bother don't count.  British governments get huge majorities although in practice only a minority of the population has voted for them. One side effect of this is that every ten years the British elect a government who spends the next decade undoing everything their predecessors did and that's how the country looks.  Its hardly a great success.  

Naturally most of the people who want Israel's system to change are anglo-saxons.  They want Israel to be more like home and assume that because their system has worked for a long time it is a great model. Since the war the Germans have had a great system, half proportional representation and half constituencies, but for some reason nobody wants a democracy like Germany.  Ironically nobody suggests we use the Dutch system which has been in use since 1917 (Holland is one of the world's oldest democracies).  There is a good reason for that:  the system we use IS the Dutch system and nobody thinks there's anything wrong with Holland's democracy.

In my opinion there are two points being missed here.  Firstly the British and American systems have evolved over time and are not simply the result of a great piece of constitutional engineering and secondly, the Israeli system is pretty good. Basically there are no magic solutions to the Israeli political system (or for that matter to the conflict with the Palestinians).

The British system has evolved over time.  Britain has no constitution and the system is a mixture of tradition and continual fine adjusting, the society has evolved with the system and the two are matched.  Changes are made gradually and carefully and that, in my opinion, is how things should be done. In 1996 a radical attempt at reform was made in Israel by having Prime Ministers directly elected to "reduce the bargaining power of small parties". What happened was the opposite, voters chose a Prime Minister they wanted and then were free to vote for their particular special interest party.  So not only was the system undermined, the result was the opposite of the intention. Overnight the main two parties lost about a third of their vote.  The new system was abandoned but the parties have never recovered.  The number of special interest parties multiplied and that is the way the system remains.  I am optimistic that the situation will return to what it was over the next few elections, but as you can see change takes decades to take effect, people do not change overnight just because the method of election changes overnight.

Although the American system was designed by a few old men, it has been subject to continual gentle adjusting (constitutional amendments) and no radical changes.  Society and electoral system have evolved together and the democratic system, for all its flaws, is highly stable.

The Israeli system is not nearly as bad as it is portrayed.  Israeli governments were dominated by the Labour party for twenty five years and over the sixty odd years of Israel's existence it has arguably beem more stable then most countries. The National Religious Party was part of coalitions for decades and Shas has been in most governments over the last twenty five years.  Israel has survived continual war, mass emmigration and terror with little damage to democracy.  I doubt Britain could survive that long without the collapse of democracy. The Israeli system has been able to rapidly adjust to the fast changing structure of society. The one million Russians who migrated in 1991 are today representated by the 12 seats of Lieberman. Incidentally Russians also want Israel to be more like Russia.  Unlike the anglo-saxons who want their election system emulated, Russians have no such desire (obviously Russian democracy is no great shakes) but many would like us to handle Gaza the way the Russians handle Chechnya.  They too, presumably, think that behaving like Russia will lead to a seat on the security council, a sputnik and the right to invade Afghanistan.
In a country at war decisions need to be made by consensus and that is what happens in Israel.  Most major sections of society are represented in the Knesset and their opinions brought to bear when making decisions.  It isn't easy but it shouldn't be. We all need to agree before we make major changes and our society is composed of some radically different segments.

Finally one should note that the Israeli system was not invented in 1948.  It started in 1920 (one could argue that Israel is one of the world's longest standing democracies), when the Yishuv in "Palestine" (as the British called it) created a council to manage its affairs and raise and allocate funds.  This was in accordance with the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and from 1928 the British recognized the authority of the "Vaad Leumi" (National Committee).  They chose proportional system as a fair way of establishing the relative strengths of parties with radically different agendas.  It is also the same system used by the World Zionist Organization, which held its first elections in about 1900 and, until 1939 had more members then the Yishuv. 

In 1948 there was no need to develop new democratic institutions: everything was in place. The Israeli political system has quite literally evolved with the society and state and it is a terribly dangerous ploy to try and radically redesign such an effective time-tested system. A bit like having a heart transplant. You only do things like that if the patient is terminally ill.  

If we need to make fine adjustments to the Israeli political system, what should we do?

 Well at present you need a low minimum of votes (threshold) to get a party elected: the equivalent of two seats.  That should be that you need the a minimual support of four seats to get elected (in Germany the figure is 5%). I say that despite being a supporter of the Green Movement which I am sure will, for the first time, scrape into the Knesset in the next elections (it may do better).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring cleaning for Passover: Ancient Bnei-Brak

Passover is nearly here, and in Israel that means two things: first everybody is spring cleaning and secondly everyone is planning a holiday. Orthodox Jews thoroughly clean out  their homes and then burn any bread.  When I lived in an orthodox neighbourhood of Tel-Aviv every passover there were small bonfires all over the place where people burnt their bread. The entire nation's supply of bread and bread shops are sold to an Arab in a town called Abu-Gosh (famed for its Pitta and Humous). He then sells it back one (bread free) week later.

The other thing that happens is that the price of a cleaning woman goes through the roof: everybody is trying to hire one.  My cleaner last year simply disappeared for three weeks as she could make much more money working for other people.  Presumably the garbage collectors have more work too. Tel-Aviv's garbage used to go to Hiriya
 which is a dump just outside the city. In the nineties when Israel made peace with Jordan I read an account by a journalist from HaAretz who went to Amman where a Palestinian approached him and said "Is it true what they say about my home village?"  "What was your village called?" replied the journalist.  "Hiriya" came the response.
From 1948 onwards all the Tel-Aviv area garbage was dumped at Hiriya and by the late nineties the dump had become a small mountain with excellent (if smelly) views of Tel-Aviv. Unfortunately Hiriya was also under the flight path to Ben-Gurion airport and at that point it began to threaten the safety of plane landings. The dump was closed and efforts are underway to turn it into a park (there is a lovely bike path from Tel-Aviv to Hiriya).  So now when we spring clean the garbage is shipped off to the Negev, which is more costly to reach and therefore gives more motivation to recycle.

I spend every other passover in England where I celebrate it with almost-family Jewish friends. I have a regular role in their Passover Seder, involving a dramatization of the ten plagues God visited on Egypt before Pharoh let the Israelites go. The kids love it but this year my mother (who also comes) warned me that the kids were getting a bit old and I might have to do something new.  So I thought of doing a presentation about the origins of the Hagaddah (the text Jews read over Passover) which is thought to have been written around the second century (using earlier bits too).
There are various Rabbis mentioned as discussing Passover in "Bnei Brak" and one can establish rough dates for when they lived as a guidance to when it was written.  So I had a look on  Wikipedia to find out about the Rabbis.
I also looked up Bnei Brak.  Modern Bnei Brak is the most religious suburb of Tel-Aviv and one of the poorest towns in Israel. I have heard that the apartment buildings are so overcrowded that at night they put out mattresses and the children sleep in the corridors.  It seems that there was a biblical town called Bnei Brak and it is thought to have been on the site of a Palestinian-Arab village called Ibnei-Ibarak.  So it goes in Israel: Palestinian towns and villages are on the remains of Jewish towns while Jewish towns are built on or near the remains of Palestinian towns and villages. 

Modern Bnei Brak was founded in 1924 and it seems that the Arab village with a similar name didn't like the connection.  So they renamed their village.  The new name?  Hiriya.  


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Life on two wheels: Motorcycle tyres and Rabbis in Tel-Aviv

Monday morning I had to go to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned. At 8:40 AM I got on my bicycle and cycled 15-20 minutes to the dentists.  They injected one half of my jaw with anaesthetic and then cleaned it with what felt like a wire brush.

When I emerged slightly staggering and with no sensation in half my jaw, I realized that I had left my mobile phone at home so I cycled home (total time: 35 minutes cycling). After checking my e-mail and making sure no one had tried to rewrite my Wikipedia "history of Israel" I got back on my bicycle and cycled to the "employment office" (1 hour cycling). They should really be called the unemployment office because except for the clerks everyone there is unemployed. To get in you undergo a quick security check where they make sure you're not a bomber and then go up two escalators where they check you more thoroughly and use a metal detector. It makes for a lot of queueing and I met Neta (my partner) in the queue.  She was going to sort out her taxes in the same building. Forty five minutes later we emerged and I cycled up to Allenby (1 hour 15 minutes cycling) where I had an excellent Felafel (cost: 10 shekels) and went in to Halper's second hand book shop to find something to read.  Halper has an excellent history section (I read history the way others read fiction) but I couldn't find anything I wanted to read. Realizing that I had to get home to close up after the cleaner, I quickly grabbed a book about Napoleon, got on my bicycle and cycled home (1 hour 50 minutes cycling). As I neared the flat I approached a roundabout at speed.  There was a car coming at the same time, I decided I didn't have time to cut in front of the car and pulled to the side, just in time to realize that the driver was Neta, returning from work.

At home I got on my motorbike to go to the supermarket and found I had a flat tyre and that someone had slashed my seat. So I inflated the tyre and made my way to the Police station to lodge a complaint. The duty officer turned out to be someone I knew when I was 13. In those days he was called "Sammy" and had a "Jewfro". Now he's bald and called Yehonadav. I liked Sammy better. We chatted about England and Football and what had happened to various people and he sent me to have my motorcycle seat photographed. Then I went to the supermarket.  When I got home I realized the flat tyre was caused by a puncture.  Flat motorcycle tyres are potentially lethal as the tyre can't grip the road, but it turns out the tyre rubber is so stiff that you can actually drive on the tyre without any air in it. Its still dangerous though. I use good quality tyres because years ago I discovered that good quality tyres make almost as much difference to how a bicycle handles as a good quality frame - and they are a lot cheaper.  

Next morning I pumped up my tyre again and drove (gingerly) to find a garage.  I usually take my motorcycle to be repaired in the south of Tel-Aviv but with a puncture thought I should find something local. The place I found turned out to belong to Israel's motocross champion.  It was the cleanest garage I have ever seen and had a huge shelf covered in motorcycling cups.  He removed my back wheel and sent me to his neighbour the "puncture-macher" (thats yiddish for something) to have the puncture repaired. 

I carried the wheel to the puncture repair shop, getting my trousers black in the process. The shop was run by an ultra-orthodox Moroccan Jew.  A large man with a beard like Herzl's and a sort of working-class no-nonsense attitude.   I assume he was Moroccan because he had several pictures of the Baba Sally, who was the legendary leader of Moroccan Jewry.  In 1948 Sally told them all to get off their arses and go to Israel, which resulted in him becoming a demi-god. So many Morroccan Jews began arriving in Israel that the government actually tried to discourage them from leaving so as to slow the flow.

There was also a large picture of the (now dead) Lubavitch Rabbi, whose followers claim he was the Messiah, and of Rabbi Kadduri, the Iraqi Kabbalist who was supposed to be over 100 years old when he died. I guess orthodox garage owners have pictures of rabbis the way secular ones might have their favourite football teams. Its like a statement of identity.  I support these Rabbis. 
There was a little desk in the centre of the shop on which stood a book of talmudic studies which I guess was there just in case the puncture-macher found himself with nothing to do.  
Other than the pictures the shop was just a large, somewhat dirty open space full of tyres and equipment for handling them. Scenes like this can only be found in Israel and make me feel like I'm living in an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel.

I took the repaired motorcycle home and gave it a wash.  Then Noam came home from school and I made some salad, fed him and then took him on the motorcycle to his youth movement (also called Noam) where he was due to act in a play.  From there I went to the health food shop bought 2 kilos of porridge oats (I eat tons of the stuff) went home, read 
about Napoleon and finally rode back into Tel-Aviv, watched Noam's play and then drove home again.

Now I need to remember to go into the History of Israel and add a bit about how Shas gave out good-luck charms blessed by Kaduri during the 1990's.  The charms claimed that they only worked if you voted for Shas.  After Shas did very well in the elections the high-court decided this was bribery and banned the practise.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My other passport is with Mossad

My daughter just got her first passport and now I am faced with the decision of whether I should try and get her a British passport too.  My son has three passports: British, US and Israeli (his mother is American).  It's fine as long as they don't all start requiring compulsory military service or taxes.  At this stage he's too young for the Mossad to send his doubles (or in his case trebles) to Dubai.  I somehow avoided this fate, probably because my surname "Lowenstein" is too obviously Jewish (it isn't Jewish). 

Passports are a big deal here in Israel.  Our passports won't get you into many places.  My British passport enables me to freely trek or work round Europe and, no less importantly, it gives me visaless entry to the USA. An Israeli wanting to travel to the USA has to queue for hours at the US Embassy where each applicant is personally interviewed to check they are neither a terrorist or someone trying to illegally emigrate.
On my occasional jaunts to Egypt and Jordan I prefer to enter with my British passport in the almost-certainly-false belief that being a Brit will somehow afford me extra protection.

Since the EU started to spread across Eastern Europe a lot of Israelis are rediscovering their Bulgarian, Polish etc. roots and trying to obtain local passports.  There may also be the distant memory of the holocaust when passports could be a ticket to life.  Raul Wallenberg famously saved thousands of Jews by handing out Swedish passports.

My father had passport troubles. He was born in Nurenburg in Germany and his parents were Polish immigrants to Germany. In 1938 the Nazis cancelled the German citizenship of all such German-Poles. 
 He was adopted by a German (-Jewish) family so it took them a bit longer to get round to him, but eventually even adopted children were traced. His (adopted) mother had to get him a fake Polish passport to enable him to leave Germany because he wasn't entitled to any passport. The German system at the time was simply to deport such Jews to Poland. The Poles refused to accept them, saying they were Germans, and about 17,000 Jews starved to death in a small space between the two countries (see Herschel Grynszpan for more information, see this too). 

You can see my grandmother's passport at the side.

When my father reached England (3 days before the outbreak of World War II) he stayed there as a non-citizen.  He used a UN refugee document to travel for the next 30 odd years and only took out British citizenship in 1969 when he decided to emigrate to Israel.  By that time he had a whole British family.  Obviously he was afraid the British wouldn't take him back. He then did the same thing in Israel, living there for ten years without taking out a passport.  It caused me a lot of trouble years later when I decided to live in Israel: they couldn't decide if I was an Israeli citizen or not.  They eventually decided I wasn't.

A few years ago my cousin applied for a German passport on the basis that her mother (my father's real sister) had been a German citizen before the war and was rejected because her mother "wasn't a German citizen".  Which I find very irritating.  Her mother was born a German citizen in Germany and it was only the Nazis who cancelled her citizenship.  Needless to say if she applied for Polish citizenship they would reject her because her mother was German.

Incidentally while my son does have a British passport his children will only be British if they are born in Britain.  The Israelis will take him wherever he is.



Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Olympics: The World'r foremost nationalist pagent

There are too many Olympic sports. I mean why is shooting an Olympic sport? If shooting is a sport then why not knife throwing, darts or firing a cannon?  And why is horse riding an Olympic sport but not sheep dog trials?  Why on earth is synchronized swimming an Olympic sport?  I know it looked good in the 1950s Hollywood movies but does that justify it becoming an Olympic sport?  Olympic sports should reflect what people actually do.
It used to drive me mad that the Triathlon was not a sport while horse jumping was (horse jumping but not horse racing... what's the difference?).  Triathlon has since got in.    But what about Snooker?  And why oh why is walking a sport?  It makes more sense to have a funny walks competition.  Chess is an Olympic sport but not Backgammon, Bridge has applied (to the Winter Olympics!) so why not Poker?

The Olympics have got way too big.  The so called Olympic village is now a small town and the facilities... At the end of an Olympics the host city gets left with a huge array of useless facilities it can't afford to maintain. I mean if it's got to be so big  why have a city host it and not a country? After all, we all know that the "London Olympics" is really the British Olympics.  They could at least spread the facilities around the country, then Birmingham could have a velodrome and Manchester could host the hop, skip and jump.  Should that really be a sport?  Why not hopskotch or rope jumping? (thanks to Udi for that one).  The "Rio Olympics" in 6 years time should really be the "Brazil Olympics".  Let Brazil decide where the facilities should be built in stead of making it all based in Rio.

Then there is the whole question of nationalism. The Olympics is the biggest nationalist pageant in the world. All those national delegations walk by holding their flag, the name of their state and if they win we all have to hear their horrible anthems. Yet the host is not a nation but a city!  If you don't have a state tough luck.  The Kurds don't get to send a delegation,  there are no Native Americans or Scots. 
Why not just have the delegations come from cities too? Come to that why have them represent places, why not ideals.  We could have the Christian delegation, the Scientologists, the Communists, the Liberals and the guys who are just in it for the money (they'll probably be the main delegation). Those who want to represent a state could simply be given a UN symbol and be designated "nationalists".
Winning athletes could choose the song they want to hear at the ceremony or perhaps just read out their poetry.  Alternatively one could make singing an Olympic sport and let the competitors sing at the awards ceremonies.

My son was at the Tel-Aviv school championships this week and I saw them handing out medals:  the little children got on a podium marked 2,1,3 just like the Olympics and a little girl came out holding a tray in front of her with the medals on it.  She then hung the medals round their necks. The ancient Greeks didn't give medals  they just put some olive twigs round peoples heads.  Medals seem a bit militaristic - the Olympics originated just before the first world war when the European cult of nationalism was at its peak.  So why not have some Hawaiian girls come out and hang wreaths of flowers on the winners necks? or special beaded necklaces?  or a nice jacket?  I expect a pile of cash would do nicely as well.  Maybe the ceremony could be made to suit the sport. Cyclists could get a bicycle, runners a pair of shoes and horse riders a sugar lump.

Basically I think that  its time the Olympics had a major makeover.  
First of all it shouldn't be hosted by a single city but by the country, and the facilities should be spread around the country so everyone gets to benefit.  
Secondly they should create some strict definition of what is an Olympic sport and throw out anything that isn't relevant.  Then they should add sports that people actually do.  I for example, would like to see cycling across town in heavy traffic made into a sport.  Perhaps one could combine it: make car driving and motor cycle driving into Olympic sports (are they really less sports then horse riding?) and then have them compete at the same time that the marathon was taking place.  The cyclists could then ride across town through all the traffic. 

Oh, I nearly forgot.  Space invaders, pong and Wii tennis. Those have got to become Olympic sports.

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...