Monday, February 22, 2010

Babatunde Olatunji

Babatunde Olatunji (here playing the west-African Djembe) is one of the most important drummers of the 20th century.

Babatunde Djembe performance.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Mufti - My part in his downfall

An ex-girl friend of mine spends her life sending e-mails to millions of people providing details of the latest Israeli academic who is voicing excessive support for the Palestinians or recommending that the institution that pays his wages etc. be boycotted. I get about two of these mails every day. So it was with a certain sense of irony that I went to a symposium at Tel-Aviv University about the psychological impact of the "Nakba" (catastrophe) on the Palestinians, organized by "Psychoactive - Mental health professionals for Human Rights".  I'm curious to see if it makes her mail.

I went because my partner Neta's best friend, organized the event and because a former neighbour and friend, Dr. Hillel Cohen was going to be speaking.  Hillel is a Communist and a Zionist, at least that's what he told me five years ago, whose grandparents (well some of them anyway) emigrated from Afghanistan.  By the way did you know that the Jews were expelled from Afghanistan in 1933? (see this in Hebrew) No, I didn't think you would know that.

What brought this symposium on was that some moron is trying to make it illegal for people to "celebrate" the Nakba and to prevent it being taught in Palestinian-Arab schools in Israel (at the moment it is). 
I remember reading an important book about languages in Africa (unfortunately I have forgotten the title) where the author described how the French would insist that Africans talk in French, while the British would insist on conversing with African employees in the five words of Swahili they had bothered to learn.  The result was that no one in Francophone Africa spoke French while the African employees of the British spoke fluent English. Bascially the British insisted on speaking broken Swahili despite the fact that their African employees spoke fluent English. It probably didn't occur to them that Africans could speak their language. 
Why am I telling you this?  Well, I think its the same with the Nakba. Forcing someone to ignore something is the surest way of ascertaining they learn it.  

So what happened at the symposium? Well I was only there in the morning but Hillel was great.  The man knows more about the war in 1948 then he does about his own life.  He pointed out that both sides did bad things, that the Jews were fighting for their lives, at least part of the time, and discussed how the war shifted. His point was that both sides need to address what happened  and come to terms with their inhumanity to the other and that left-wing Israelis need to be more challenging in their dialogues with Palestinians and not just nod all the time and say, "sure we are bastards".  At least that was what I understood.  No doubt others heard something else.  Hillel commented that one aspect of the war is that both side's recollections are true and yet they completely contradict each other.  

All those present were at pains to stress that the Holocaust was far worse and no comparison could be made.  Unfortunately that was the only comparison.  Sephardi Jews were not mentioned and, as far as I could tell, few if any were present, that is to say the other great expulsion of the conflict was not mentioned or debated despite the fact that the symposium was about expulsion and memory. So it was basically an Ashkenazi symposium attended by a few Arabs (there were Arab speakers too).  

Another person I recognized was Dr. Olek Netzer.  A Polish woman found Olek in a paper bag next to the Warsaw Ghetto. There was a small spoon inside the bag on which someone had carved one word:  "Olek".  

Friday, February 19, 2010

Earthquake Fears in Tel-Aviv

The recent quake in Haiti has set off alarm bells here in Israel. Historically Israel gets an earthquake every century and the last one was in 1927 so our due date is coming up.  The first result was  that all the school children in the country practised getting under their tables.  No doubt that will really make a difference should anything happen.

The good news is that most earthquakes happen along the Dead Sea's "rift valley" which is, of course, the lowest point on earth (one would expect it to be earthquake prone) and most of us live along the coast on the other side of the country. The bad news is that  Ramle which is 30 kilometers from Tel-Aviv gets devastated every 500 years or so, although it must be said that they aren't due for a devastation for another four hundred years. To be honest, with the exception of the Tomb of St. George (in nearby Lod), most of Ramle would benefit from a major rebuilding.

To encourage buildings to get earthquake protection the government is promoting a program where older blocks of flats can add a floor free of charge if they add reinforced rooms (against bombs and chemical weapons) to the building.  The policy used to be that each building had a communal bomb shelter in the basement but since the 1991 Gulf War they  want everyone to have a personal room made of reinforced concrete which can be sealed off from chemical weapon attacks. We Jews always expect the worst. I recently took my son to the doctor and said "doctor! there's something wrong with him, he's never ill!" (I'm afraid this story is true).
Here in Tel-Aviv what that means is that various builders offer to give you an extra (reinforced) room in return for you letting them build (and sell) apartments on the roof. The reinforced rooms are also designed (I assume) to keep the building upright in the event of an earthquake. 

Well for those of us who, like me, live in a block of (Tel-Aviv) flats built in the fifties that's good news. We have builders offering us an extra room, a lift and a full building facelift in return for the roof.  My guess is that at the end the building will simply collapse under the extra weight without need for any added earthquakes.  Oh and the pipes will all block up. Yes I'm always optimistic.

So now we in the building have to decide.  We have been shown a draft contract but there are catches.  They want every apartment owner to sign the contract and one bloke has gone AWOL in Los Angeles and can't be found.  We (the flat owners) have to meet and discuss the proposals and some of the tenants here are better suited to life in a zoo.  Though I suspect they would put the chimps off their tea if they did move to the zoo.

The biggest catch of all, is that I am the building's "house maintenance sucker volunteer" and have to call everyone and get them to appear for meetings, not to mention collecting money for communal maintenance costs.  Still if it does actually happen, and I do manage to trace a man by the odd name of Hoshung Darby in LA (he sounds like a South Korean moped) then the value of my apartment might rise by quite a bit. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Me and Mister Goldstone

I recently saw an excellent film called American
, a true story about an honest
 single African-American mother wrongly accused and
arrested for dealing drugs in a small town in Texas.  Basically the local
sheriff would go into the African-American neighbourhood once a year
or so with a huge array of armed police and arrest a large chunk of the local
population.  A local informant would be found who would 'finger' people
who broke the law - in return for being exempt - and then using his list, lots
of people would be arrested and quickly tried.  They would be given the
choice of a plea bargain or an extrenely draconian sentence, so most pleaded
guilty: especially single mothers facing loss of their children like our

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was looking to put an end to this
racist method of keeping the peace but couldn't do anything because most people
were pleading guilty or were involved in illegal acts. In this case they found
a woman who had been falsely accused (the snitch was influenced by her
ex-husband) and willing to fight so their (Jewish) lawyer took the case to
court. Its a great story.

How does this relate to the Goldstone report? Well, the UNHRC  (United Nations Human Rights
Committee) which appointed Goldstone, was created in 2006 and is
dominated by African and Arab countries. It mostly just discusses anything
Israel does and has worked to downgrade monitoring of human rights abuses in
Congo and Sudan, countries where Genocide and mass-rape are currently taking place.  The UNHRC employs a full time investigator for the Palestinian territories (but for nowhere else), a man who believes the 9/11 was a US government conspiracy.

To prevent the report on the Gaza conflict from being ignored, the UNHRC found a radical Jewish
human rights advocate (Goldstone), who is genuinely interested in human rights but tends to
assume the worst where Israel is concerned. 

So the UNHRC acted
like the racist district attorney in American Violet.  They assumed that
Israel was guilty and sent in a big team.  The jury inevitably agrees. The
Jewish state looks to the UN like a large black man with an afro in a Texas court
room.  The sentencing is draconian and Israel has the option to plead
guilty or get involved in a difficult fight.  Were crimes committed?
 Possibly.  Would anybody else be investigated for them?  No.

in Israel we have many organizations and decent people - like Goldstone - dedicated to ensuring we
respect human rights.  That is the way things should be. Problem is that in
their anxiousness to ensure that Israel adhere to human rights they have aided the UNHRC whose
members are not interested in human rights: that is to say they are concerned
with Palestinian human rights: but not 
universal human
rights.  Certainly not Israeli human rights.


Needless to say by the time I have something to say about 
the Goldstone report, it is old news. Even so, and despite the fact that I haven't read the report, I thought I would put my thoughts down on paper the screen, perhaps also to explain why I haven't read it.


My feeling is that organizations who wish to ensure that Israel adhere to human rights should take into account the nature of those they are working with.  Human rights are universal and all humans are entitled to them, but either you protect them universally or you only protect those who share a commitment to universal human rights. To only protect those who do not share that belief is to undermine human rights.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My Wikipedia Habit

A few years ago I found myself with a fresh MA in History and not much to do. I had a go at publishing my thesis (British prison camps in Cyprus for illegal Jewish migrants to Palestine) but wasn't successful and didn't feel like sending out copies of it to masses of academic journals. 

So I decided to publish it on Wikipedia. I went in and found that there were masses of related items I needed to fix and so spent months working on material related to Israeli history culminating in the development of a page devoted solely to the History of Israel.

The joy of editing Wikipedia comes from realising that what you write there is likely to be more influential then any academic journal.  The problem is that you can't claim ownership or get any recognition and that any Tom Dick and Harry can come along and change your entry.  So if you want to keep what you've done you have to keep a constant eye on the content and be prepared to go in and fix things. Fortunately Wikipedia provides a tool for "watching" articles you are interested in and then the moment someone changes say the entire content of the article on "Israel" to a few rude words you can quickly go in and change it back.  There is also a "discussion" page where editors can debate changes.  These are sometimes longer then the articles.

What this means is that if you want to say something and not have it rapidly deleted, what you say must be uncontroversial. When editing something like Israel the art lies in taking something very controversial and producing a statement about it that nobody can argue with. For example " Israel's democracy has survived under difficult circumstances and the country has prospered despite war, ethno-religious conflict, boycotts, mass immigration and terror attacks"   (that's one of mine).  Things also evolve over time; people come in and copyedit what I write or they change things because they don't understand something.  People kept changing CE and BCE to AD and BC until I added a comment explaining the terms (in History of Israel). Since then that part of the article has remained stable. 

Finding a statement about say Jerusalem's status as capital of Israel that both Palestinians and Israelis can agree on is very satisfying.  In those situations I feel that Wikipedia can be a tool for peace and understanding.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Spartan's CV

Interviews, interviews.  Yes I'm out of a job and busily sending my CV off to potential employers. I wonder, where did this practise originate?  Did people in the 14th century have a scribe write their work experience on a piece of vellum, then seal it with some wax and send it to the Royal Court in the hope of finding work as a bathroom attendant? Did ancient Egyptian architects send the Pharoh a papyrus with hieroglyphs describing their latest tomb design?  If this person is alive can we put them on trial?

I recently came to realize that I don't need to recount how I started work in computing twenty years ago and that achievements I regard as important just may not interest anyone any more - like getting my A-levels in England 15 months after return from ten years in Israel.  That was an awfully long time ago.

So I've created a Spartan CV containing just the last ten years of my work activity and sent it out and things have improved, which is to say that I am now being invited for interviews. But what should I wear?  

I still have the same outfit for doing interviews I had ten years ago, and the Pierre Cardin trousers which looked quite stylish now deliver a strong has-been message. Fortunately my Oliver Peoples glasses have gone from being glasses made by an unknown designer to glasses made by a designer who was recently where its at.  So they are only a couple of years out of date.  The soles of my beautiful Timberland office shoes have simply disintegrated:  I guess the rubber couldn't stand being in cupboards for so long.  So I'm putting together new outfits, a bit at a time as more of my old wardrobes fall apart.

The other problem is that the interviewers look like children. I feel that I should really be preparing their lunch and giving them a quick tap on the back as I send them out to university.  Its hard not to tell them what to do or to say things like "Wow! you're so clever!  You're doing a really good job".  Mostly I'm about the same age as the CEO, but even that tends to be uncertain and I try to remember to shave before I go for a job interview because my white hair is largely in my beard and then I won't look quite so old.  

My job interviews start with me being invited to make myself a cup of coffee - I'm no longer important enough for the secretary to do it - and then we go and hunt for a room. Somehow the children interviewing me have never pre-arranged an interview room and lack their own office.  Then they say "but you seem a bit over-qualified".  So I sigh internally and say yes... but I am reinventing myself for a new generation and want to work on the internet...

Will I manage?  Necessity usually does a good job at mothering my inventions but who knows how long it will take.  I assume that at some point the right thing will turn up but will it happen before I go bankrupt?   
In the mean time I keep chasing my tail and hoping that the white shirt I have worn to too many interviews doesn't join the many other items I have been forced to reinvent.

Oh by the way if you're looking for a technical writer...


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...