Sunday, November 23, 2014

How to repair the Israel Labor Party

This is my four point program for restoring the Israeli Labor party to a position of influence in Israeli politics. At present the party which used to dominate Israeli politics holds 19 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. I haven't discussed the issues which I regard as important as I don't think the problem is purely one of issues, though of course selecting the right issues would help.

1. Make Your Presence Felt (outside the Knesset)
Labor needs to maintain constant contact with its voters - not just its activists - so that its leaders can develop a feel for what people want and can be seen to be out there connecting to people, not just turning up at election time.  Activists are key here in that they are the people who provide the interface between the party and voters.  The great advantage of religious groups in this respect is that places of worship provide an excellent base for recruiting activists and disseminating ideas. The internet can be an excellent substitute for places of worship but it needs to be about more then just issuing Facebook status updates and it needs to be one of a number of tactics.

2. Indirect Leadership Elections.
This may sound odd, but imitating the USA practise of direct election of party leaders is bad for Israeli democracy. The principle reason is that running as a candidate is very expensive and not subject to meaningful financial controls so it provides a way for Israel's super-rich to "run" candidates and ensure that the people they want win elections.  It would be better to have activists vote for regional boards which then elect a national executive that chooses the leadership annd candidates.  Basically a two phase tiered system giving the grass roots some control over the election process but reducing the need for huge funds to get elected while rewarding dedication and hard work and also ensuring that the best - not the most popular - people win.

3. Russian Voters.
The Israeli left has abandoned Russian immigrants to Lieberman. Winning Russian votes is not just about winning hearts and minds its, about connecting to "progressive" Russian figureheads and giving them prominent and influential roles in the Party hierarchy so that Russian voters can see they are represented and so that the issues that affect them, such as converisons, weddings, drug abuse programs etc. are properly discussed.

4. Ehud Barak.
I know no one likes him, that he puts his own interests before the party and that he doesn't care about economics or social justice but the truth is that he is probably the only Labor leader who can unseat Netanyahu.  So the party needs to structure itself so that if Barak can be leader but can't control economic policy and can't determine party structure.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Watching football in Tel Aviv: I was at the unfinished derby match.

At the end of last week a friend of mine informed me he had got us tickets to see the Tel Aviv derby on Sunday. This is the second time he's invited me to a match and I had mixed feelings: he buys tickets behind the goals where the fans don't sit in their seats: they stand throughout the game so if you want to see anything you have to stand for over an hour and a half.  The Israeli fans also like to eat unshelled sunflower seeds and spit out the shells.  This means that a lot of seats end up covered in disgusting sunflower shells.  Althoguh the tickets have marked seats you have to arrive 45 minutes early and simply pick a good place to stand because nobody take any notice of the seating.  In the previous match we went to, Maccabi Tel Aviv against HaPoel BeerSheva, most of the chants involved references to various people's mothers which I found distasteful.
My friend is a supporter (die hard?) of Maccabi Tel Aviv. I have no problem with this in basketball: as a teenager I watched Maccabi dismantle a CSKA Moscow team that refused to play in Israel, before going on to win the European cup.
In football I feel less keen.  In 2002, I watched HaPoel Tel Aviv knock (pre-Abramovitch) Chelsea out of the UEFA cup at Stamford Bridge and I like their hammer and sickle logo. HaPoel means "the labourer" and the team was originally sponsored by the trade union movement.  The Chelsea match was the last time I saw a game in England and you had to sit in your marked seat, stewards stood there, watching us like hawks and shouting at anyone who dared to stand up (we did dance around when HaPoel scored). On the pitch, policemen ignored the game and peered intently at the crowd watching for trouble makers.
As we left the pitch, I heard a Chelsea steward commenting to his friend, how disciplined the HaPoel supporters were. A Chelsea fan making Nazi salutes was simply ignored.

Yesterday was different.

There were masses of stewards, but they just ignored us and stood around.  As I said, the seat numbers on the tickets were purely advisory: you do have to go into designated gates, so we were behind the goals and arrived 45 minutes early so as to find a good place to stand. Actually I used to watch Arsenal in the 'Eighties and then the places behind the goal were standing only, so in that respect it was the same.  The season ticket holders arrived late: they sit in the best seats and I suppose their seat's locations must be honoured.

Maccabi and HaPoel share the same stadium: Bloomfield, which is actually a rather nice stadium. It seats 20 or 30,000 and there are good views from all over. I used to live nearby and my son Noam studies the bassoon at a music centre next door.

Because this was a HaPoel home game, most of the seats were allocated to HaPoel.  However, there was a clearly pre-arranged effort by Maccabi fans to break the allocation. Large numbers had bought tickets for the seating areas adjacent to the area allocated to Maccabi fans.  I know it was pre-arranged because most of them wore white: there was no indication that they were Maccabi fans until a little before the game when they suddenly surged over to the side next to the Maccabi fans, forcing the police to separate them from the HaPoel fans and resulting in at least one HaPoel fan trying (unsuccessfully) to pick a fight. On the other side from where we stood, someone was arrested but I didn't see what for.
The Maccabi fans behind the blue fence are actually in an area meant to separate the rival fans.  It was supposed to be empty.

A couple of minutes before the game started, the Maccabi fans let off massive yellow smoke bombs (Maccabi's colours are Yellow and Blue). The Turkish team Galatasaray was recently fined by UEFA because fans let off smoke bombs at Arsenal and I knew that this is a transgression.
Smoke bomb at the Tel Aviv derby
My friend is a physician and he was worried about the affect the smoke would have on the fan's lungs; we were far away and unaffected by the smoke.
Smoke bomb dissipating
After that things were fairly normal.  The chanting was better then when I saw HaPoel Beer Sheva and the game was good. Maccabi were attacking the other end of the pitch from where we stood, and dominated the game, except that HaPoel made one good counter attack and scored against the run of play.  A few minutes later there was an incident in the HaPoel penalty box and a Maccabi player fell over.  I was too far away to see what happened and, annoyingly, live football doesn't feature action replays.  There was a penalty and Eran Zahavi scored.
I didn't see what happened next but around me I head people muttering that Zahavi had been warned about his goal celebrations, while others imitated him - which enabled me to figure out what happened.  It seems that Zahavi's "trade mark" goal celebration is to hold his hands as if they were pistols making shots: just like a child might.  Around me people made pretend guns with their hands and went "piu piu",which is the sound Israeli children make as a gun noise.

Apparently Zahavi aimed his pretend pistols at the HaPoel fans. A few minutes later, as he went to take a penalty a HaPoel fan ran into the pitch and attacked him. It looked like Zahavi defended himself (it was all very fast and far away) but after the fan was arrested, Zahavi was shown a red card for hitting the fan.

The Maccabi fans were incensed: their star was attacked and then the attacker was rewarded by seeing him sent off! Zahavi didn't just walk off, he angrily ran at the referee and a crowd of Maccabi players pushed round the referee.  The referee walked away but if he had stood his ground I think he could have gotten knocked over.
The exit from the pitch was at the other end: where all the HaPoel fans were standing.  Police took Zahavi off, and bottles were thrown at him (about 5). I think there was an attempt to renew the game, but within seconds more balding men, this time I think they were angry Macabbi fans, ran onto the pitch.  Mostly they weren't attacking anyone,  though some seemed to want to run at the HaPoel fans, basically they mostly they were furious about Zahavi being sent off.
Well that was it. The fans were tackled by police and taken away.  The game halted and the players left the pitch, We stood around wondering what to do: would it get violent?  It didn't look like it. Would the game resume?  Would we get our money back if it didn't?
The Guardian says there was fighting "near the city courthouse". There is a court a kilometer away on Shoken street and maybe the arrested fans were taken there, but there was no trouble outside the stadium. I nearly stepped in police horseshit on the way out (I saw two policemen on horseback).  They should make them pick up the shit like dog owners do.
By the way all the invading fans seemed to have shaven heads.  Israel has a high percentage of balding men and the fashion is for them to shave all their hair off. This seems to apply to the tema's management as well. Maccabi's manager is Jordi Cruyff, son of the  Dutch legend.

BBC coverage
The Jerusalem Post has the full incident: http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Sports/Disgrace-for-Israeli-soccer-as-hooligan-storms-pitch-attacks-Maccabi-Tel-Aviv-player-380693




Saturday, November 1, 2014

Trapped in East Berlin: My close shave with totalitarianism

In 1988 I travelled to visit a cousin who worked at the US Embassy in what was then East Berlin. My cousin lived in West Berlin, which was then a Western enclave in Communist Eastern Europe and surrounded by a huge wall with armed guards, ferocious dogs and other lethal devices which prevented anyone from trying to enter the enclave.
The West was allowed to send in troop trains through designated corridors.  The trains were banned from stopping on the way.  Because my cousin was an employee of the US, I entered on a US military train.
Ticket for US troop train to West Berlin (front side)

I spent a week in West Berlin.  Everywhere you went, you sooner or later came up against the vast wall. It was strange that the wall was to prevent those outside from getting in, logically one would have expected it to be the other way round. The Western side of the wall was covered in superb graffiti and there were little platforms with steps, like airplane steps where you could mount and look out across the wall.
At some point my cousin suggested I come with him and spend a day in East Berlin. He commuted to work through a border post known as "Checkpoint Charlie" in a car with diplomatic number plates. Checkpoint Charlie was notorious as the most tense border post in the "Iron Curtain".  He told me that without the Berlin Wall his 40 minute commute would take 10 minutes.

There was a delay as the East German border guards checked my credentials, but eventually they waved us through. My cousin gave me a roll of East German money and told me to meet him at "the Grand Hotel's restaurant" at five.
For the rest of the day I wandered around East Berlin. The pubs sold one type of beer, one type of sandwich and nothing else. There was no advertising - anywhere. In a dingy coffee-shop I entered, people sat in clouds of cigarette smoke and pressed their head together to prevent eavesdropping. A food shop sold nothing but potatoes, cabbages and apples. It was very grey. In the main square a miserable looking man sold hot dogs from a small stand, it was clearly not his stand but the product of a bureaucratic decision to sell sausages from a stand. There was very little to spend the money on and it was a drab unpleasant place. The best looking office building I saw had closed circuit cameras on it and little hearts on its railings.  "The Ministry of Love!" I thought to myself;  in Orwell's 1984 it is the name of the secret service's offices and the cameras (unusual at the time) suggested this must be it.
Back side of the US troop train ticket

At four I wandered over to the Grand Hotel and found the restaurant, but my cousin wasn't there. I went to the US Embassy which was closed. A voice in an intercom told me my cousin had left. I went back to the hotel but he wasn't there. At this point it dawned on me that I was stuck in a totalitarian country with no visa and a large role of bank notes (tourists were limited to small amounts of expensively priced currency). It didn't look good. I returned to the US Embassy where I was now told curtly to leave and the East German Police guards looked at me suspiciously. By the way, East German policemen were awfully small and unhealthy looking.
I started walking back to Check Point Charlie feeling very fearful as it seemed certain I would be arrested for having no visa and illegal currency. East Germany was a notorious dictatorship and I felt scared. I shared my predicament with an American tourist who advised me to go back and "spend my money", which was not sound advice as the shops were completely empty and there was nothing to buy.  I decided to make a last try at the hotel but this time I went round to the main entrance which was surprisingly fancy.  It had rotating brushes on the floor which cleaned your shoes as you went in.
A uniformed clerk rushed up to me ( I looked very scruffy) and asked what I was doing there. I told him sadly that I had arranged to meet my cousin in the hotel but he hadn't arrived.  "But we have eight restaurants!" he exclaimed.  I felt massive relief and started carefully exploring the hotel.  I found my cousin in the fourth restaurant. I suppose it was the only place in East Berlin to eat an expensive meal.  He told me that they had fully expected to have to release me from prison.