Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why the UN General Assembly could create Israel but can't create Palestine.

In 1947 the UN General Assembly voted to partition what was then the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. As a result Israel came into being.  The Arabs rejected the decision and no Arab state was created.
In late 2012 the General Assembly voted that "Palestine" be granted non-member observer status.  Why didn't they create a member state?

Basically the only body in the UN that can take any binding decisions  is the Security Council and the five permanent members  can veto any decisions they don't like. The other ten members are taken in turn from the various regions. As  members of the council they can put things on the agenda for discussion.

In 2011 Lebanon was briefly chair of the council and proposed that the council accept the Palestinians as a state.  The Security Council referred the issue to its membership committee for investigation and the membership committee came back with inconclusive results since the Palestinians failed to meet some of the conditions of the UN charter. The committee recommended an intermediate step of granting the Palestinians observer status by the General Assembly, which apparently is the most the General Assembly can do without Security Council backing.  The issue was thus not presented to the Security Council, but maybe at a later date. The point of this decision was, I suppose, to prevent international conflict over the issue by deferring it.

Back in 1947, the Security Council decided it couldn't be bothered with the whole Palestine thing and handed the issue over to the General Assembly. That's why Israel was created by the General Assembly.    The 1947 General Assembly decision called on the UN take various actions which the Security Council refused to take, so no one actually worked to implement the decision and the new state of Israel was forced to fight for its existence, it was eventually admitted to the UN in March 1949, following a Security Council decision:

"The  Security  Council, Having  received  and  considered  the  application  of 
Israel  for  membership  in  the  United  Nations, Decides  in  its  judgement  that  Israel  is  a  peace-loving  State  and  is  able  and  willing  to  carry  out  the obligations  contained  in  the  Charter,  and  accordingly, Recommends to  the  General  Assembly  that  it  admit Israel  to  membership  in  the  United  Nations, 
Adopted  at  the  414th  meeting by  9  votes to  I  (Egypt),  with I  abstention  (United  Kingdom 
of  Great  Britain  and  Northern Ireland)."

In those days, there were less council members and US television companies broadcast UN Security Council discussions live.

Had the Security Council decided in 2012, to accept the Palestinians into the UN, the USA would almost certainly have vetoed the decision. Vetoing decisions is embarrassing for the permanent members of the Security Council and implies they lack moral authority.  That is really the most the Palestinians can aim for, but as it was no veto was required.  While this is a bit of a failure for the Palestinians, the issue is still out there and has simply been deferred for the time being.

The Israeli press have widely quoted the  Palestinians as saying they will use their new observer status to take issues to UN's International Court of Justice (at the Hague: homepage), however they may find that it makes awkward decisions for them too and even if it decides in their favor, all the court can do is make a recommendation to the Security Council on legal matters.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Making peace by statistics: Professor Maoz

A fascinating article by Professor Ze'ev Maoz in Yediot Ahronot today (in Hebrew), suggests Israel might be addicted to war. Apparently Maoz ran a statistical analysis of wars over the last couple of hundred years and found that the same states were involved in most of them. For obvious reasons the Germans, Italians and Japanese gave up warfare but the British, Russians and Americans still love it and among small states,the Turks, Greeks and Israelis were ranked highly along with Egypt, Iraq and Iran.  Israel came out as the most war-prone small country in the world since 1948.
Wow I thought, that's interesting.  But then I remembered that I attended a lecture by Maoz at Tel Aviv University around the year 2,000 and that he was running these statistics even then. In that lecture he had found that countries with nuclear weapons were far less likely to go to war: In other words Nukes had indirectly kept the peace. I remember thinking great so what do we do with that.  If I remember correctly he also found something else which was interesting:  Democracies almost never went to war with each other.
Maoz' statistics became very popular. Netanyahu gave a lecture at the University of Tel Aviv and with a broad smile told us that until the Arabs adopted democracy there would be no lasting peace in the Middle East.  At the time Arab democracy seemed highly unlikely and obviously Netanyahu liked that mantra.  I'm pretty sure he must have told it to his friend George Bush, and Bush bought into it big time.
One of the aims of the US invasion of Iraq was to forcibly install democracy and when Israel withdrew from Gaza, Bush insisted there had to be free and fare elections in the Palestinian territories, The Palestinians had free and fare elections and duly elected Hamas which rejected all peace agreements signed by the PLO. They have had no free elections since.
Bush installed democracy in Iraq, and the main result was that for the first time, Iraq's largest ethnic group,the Shi'ites, took over and they then forged an alliance with Iran.  Iraq has now managed two free elections and because no ethnic group has a full majority it is possible that some level of democracy will survive.
Maybe this contributed to the Arab spring and we have recently seen free elections in Egypt, bringing the Moslem Brotherhood to power.
 Maybe these elections are a good thing but so far they hardly seem to make peace with Israel more likely.
The Israeli governments PR  body has recently produced an ad about HIV.  It features a doctor explaining that statistically people who don't have sex don't catch Aids, therefore he says to avoid catching Aids, everyone should abstain from sex.  The ad then shows various people who never have sex, including a male mermaid, a TV star, a hysterical serial dater and a robot. The punchline is that if you do need to have sex, use a condom (in Hebrew).
Maoz statistics are a bit similar. Statistically the best way to prevent warfare is to distribute nuclear weapons to everyone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Air-raid sirens in Tel Aviv

The recent mini-war with Gaza caused a few air-raid sirens in Tel Aviv. The first caught me and the kids in the playground next to our apartment block. It's a popular playground and it was very busy.
The siren went off and there was a second when everyone looked stunned and then everybody in the playground scattered - except me who stood there wondering how seriously I should take this thing.
As luck would have it, my partner was just returning from the shops at that moment. "Come on" she said, "We have 90 seconds to take cover". So we scooped up the girls and ran over to our block, pausing to collect a man and his crying daughter, who had taken cover behind the local Likud branch, a tiny building next to our building.  We told them to join us in our stairwell.

The stairwell turned out to be packed.  There were various people who happened to be passing along and most of our neighbors. Its an old building and we have no "security rooms" which are now built as standard on new Israeli buildings and are chemical weapon and missile proof.  Our building has a bomb shelter in the basement but its dank and unpleasant and we were advised to hang-out in the stairwell on one of the lower floors, so the whole building was hanging out together.

The man and his crying daughter turned out to be tourists from Morocco of all places.  After what seemed like 90 seconds we heard a very distinct "boom", which may have been the missile defense shield blowing up the incoming missile or the missile hitting the ground. When the siren ended we went up to our apartment.

There were a few sirens in Tel Aviv, fortunately they all occurred at convenient hours of the day, mostly when I was at work and not at night.

Last week my daughter Shani (who is three years old), turned to me and said "When will there be a siren again?" I told her that was it, we'd done.  "Oh" she said, "Well in that case I'll be the siren" and she proceeded to make a fair imitation of the siren.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What I'm reading

I'm trying a book diary... Feels like a primary school exercise.

May 2013 -

April 2013 - Righteous Victims by Benny Morris.  The most comprehensive account of the Middle East conflict, but I think it loses it a bit after Sadat comes to Jerusalem and the conclusion was a bit weak.

January 2013 - The Chosen Few - Eckstein and Botticini - An amazing book about Jewish demographics between the first century CE and the 15th century.  The authors argue that in the second century the Rabbinical leaders of the Jews took a decision to make literacy compulsory, even ordering that illiterate Jews be boycotted.  As a result there was a massive movement of Jews into Christianity (which made no such demands) while the structure of Jewish occupations switched to a focus on trade, manufacture, money lending and other occupations where literacy was an advantage. In particular there was a massive movement of Jews out of agriculture.
a lot of the material they use is based on the Cairo Geniza.

26 December 2012 - Five to Rule Them All - David Bosco - Few people seem aware that the UN Security Council pretty much runs the UN. I got his book because I felt I needed to better understand how it works, at first look I thought it was a mistake (I got it from Amazon) but its proving a real eye-opener.

9 December 2012 - The Most Human Human - Brian Christian - Nettie passed this on to me, apparently she got it following Fabiano's recomendation. A brilliantly original book and an excellent insight into making conversation by analyzing how computers fake human chat.

30 November 2012 - Bible and Sword - Barbara Tuchman - A re-read, I read this years ago. This time I particularly noticed the superb conclusion explaining why the British took over 'Palestine'. she thinks the Balfour Declaration was basically a justification for conquest. The British needed a strong justification for such a contested land and their real interest was protecting Suez and the route to India. Its interesting how many different explanations one gets for the Balfour declaration (anti-semitic influences,  desire for Jewish support, Weizmann's chemistry, evangelical influences).  I think the variety of explanations reflects how many different needs the declaration met and that juxtaposition is what led to it being made.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My IKEA kitchen hell

Tuesday 15/07/2008 go to IKEA and order an "Applad" off white kitchen and matching marble countertop at IKEA.  It takes 5 hours and is exhausting. Not all parts are available. The staff in the kitchen department say that parts will be kept back on our behalf when they arrive.  It costs about 13000 shekels for the kitchen 3000 for the countertop.  It is slightly cheaper then the cheapest supplier I have been able to find and is the only supplier who can promises almost immediate delivery.

Thursday 17/07/2008 IKEA deliver kitchen (in boxes). cost:350 shekels

Thursday 24/07/2008 an IKEA sub-contractor comes and measures the kitchen.

Friday   8/08/2008  the same IKEA sub-contractor comes and puts the kitchen together - except for missing parts and corrections.  He gives us a pile of bits to return and list of missing parts to request, most of which are doors: the kitchen has no doors.  The subcontractor costs 1600 shekels for two visits.  The idea is that he puts up what he can on the first visit and then after we collect the missing parts he will do the remainder on a second visit.  This is the first visit.

Monday 11/8/08  The staff in the IKEA kitchen department tell me that Applad off-white has been replaced and the colours have changed. They send me to the customer service department, where I queue for 45 minutes and then am told that customer services will call "next day".  I am given an incident number: 810697.  The whole visit takes about 4 hours.  I now know most of the little short-cuts through the store.

After a couple of days I break and call customer services who tell me to be patient and that they will respond on Sunday.

Sunday 17/8/2008 customer services finally call to say the problem is simple.  IKEA have replaced the catalogue numbers but there is no change to the colours, I just need to wait for the new numbers to enter the store.

I then periodically call customer services (about 15 minutes each time), initially the parts are being shipped, then they are in port, then they are waiting arrival in store...

Thursday 3/9/2008 all the required parts except for one door are in the store.  I figure best to get what I can before it leaves the store.

Friday 4/9/08 14:00 We go to the IKEA store and discover that Applad colours have indeed changed from off-white to white. After an angry visit to customer services (we don't queue)  we are told to select all new white Applad parts to replace the off-white Applad that are now out of service (Applad is the only type we like) and then return to customer services.  

We go to the kitchen department and order new white fronts for the kitchen. Some parts can't be replaced because they have marble counter-top stuck to them but most can. So we will have a few stripes of off-white amid the white kitchen.  It may not be too bad as the dish-washer is white.

After the reorder I spend 30 minutes queuing for customer services. Shift manager Y. Fadlon of customer services promises that they will come and remove the parts that need to be replaced.  I have now paid for some parts of the kitchen twice.    

Finally I go to collect the parts (each collection requires a two hour wait after payment) and am told that 3 white doors are not in the warehouse, although payment has been taken - a computer error?
I go back to customer services (no queuing this time) Y. Fadlon promises they will be shipped at IKEA's expense the moment they come in and that they will call on Sunday.  My money is not refunded.  Given incident number 810697 (the same as last time).

I know some more short-cuts through the store.  Possibly all of them.

Sunday 7/9/08.  No one calls. At 17:00 I break and call IKEA services.   I talk to Martha. She tells me that they will call me back in two days  I insist she talk to her managers. she tells me her managers are called C. Itelberg (customer service phones) and L. Tapuz (customer service face-to-face). After a delay she promises that a "senior customer service person" called Levana, who specializes in kitchens, will call me the next day.

Monday 8/9/08 16:15 Levana calls.  She tells me she will try to locate the missing parts (off white) in foreign stores. Tells me to get as much done as possible in the off-white - that is to have the sub-contractor do his second visit and finish off what he can. She says they will pay for extra visits to build the kitchen and tells me to ignore the new white version, says that they will collect it from me.

I am now managing three inventories:

a. the missing off-white parts from the kitchen
b. the missing white parts from the kitchen
c. the white parts I have paid for but which IKEA have not supplied.

This is starting to confuse me - even the IKEA computer system finds it hard to manage this.

I also have a large bundle of receipts that I am trying not to lose and a large stack of IKEA boxes in my spare room.  I decide it is time to photograph the kitchen. I am  considering calling my lawyer for advice but fear the added cost.  I no longer have any idea how much this kitchen has cost but estimate that I have reached the 20,000 shekels mark although refunds may be eventually materialize.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Women in combat and victorious armies: Feminism at Tel Aviv University

In 1999 I was studying for an MA in Political Science at Tel Aviv University and was required to attend a lecture by Professor Azar Gat, head of the Diplomacy and Security program. The lecture was on the advisability of allowing women to take combat roles in the Israeli Army. The Israeli army requires women to serve two years military service and women were not allowed to perform combat roles.
The US army had changed its position some years earlier and there was a beginning of a debate in Israel.
The lecture hall at the University was bursting and most of the senior lecturers were there, including the one or two women on the staff. Gat's program is a way of drawing in senior officers to the University because they get points and pay rises for getting further degrees. Presumably the army also pays for their studies along the way. There were a few uniformed women soldiers in the audience.
Gat's lecture was dull.  I remember feeling astonished that he could make so much fuss about giving a lecture when he really had nothing to say.  He made a single point and it wasn't very interesting: If an Israeli woman gets taken prisoner it will be a major burden ad the army will have to pay a high price to release her.
Its kind of a loser's argument: Lets assume it all fails and then discuss the consequence of that.
I remember seeing Dr. Erika Weinthal, who had taught me, walk out in disgust.
In the course of the  lecture, Gat gave examples of armies which had allowed women to take up combat roles: The Israeli army in 1948, the Red Army in the Second World War and Russian Civil War, the US army in Iraq, the Vietcong, the Eritrean liberation front, Mao's Army. What struck me about his examples was that they were all victorious armies.  So during the post-lecture questions I raised my hand and at some point he got to me and I asked him how he explained that all his examples of armies permitting women in combat were victorious armies.
I still remember the moment.  Gat was stunned.  There was a silence in the room and I noticed a couple of the women in uniform turning, approvingly, to get a good look at me.  He stammered something about higher levels of mobilization and then said, something along the lines of "You know what, why don't you come and study with me and we'll figure it out".
Then I made a typical mistake.  I stood on my principles.  "No", I told him.  "That's your job!", "You explain it to me."
With hindsight I probably threw away my best shot at a career in academia.
The way I remember it, from that point on the lecture was basically over.  Gat had very little to say and my question had simply blown his lecture away. Within a year of that lecture, the Israeli army decided to open combat positions to women. I am quite sure (though I have no proof) that my question at that lecture was a key factor in the decision.  When it comes to military decision making, nothing trumps victory.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Are the Crusades part of the history of Israel or the history of Palestine?

Every so often, someone who edits the History of Palestine on Wikipedia notices that there is an overlap problem:  A lot of the content on the History of Palestine also exists on the History of Israel, and so that person suggests, on the History of Palestine's discussion page, that the History of Israel should really only be about Israeli history since 1948 and the rest of the content deleted.
What then happens is a chorus of agreement on the History of Palestine page, so this good natured person goes to the discussion page on the History of Israel and announces this agreement. They then invite anyone to respond - on the History of Palestine's discussion page of course - before apparently planning to enact their plans.
The first time this happened I was perturbed. I looked at the History of Palestine and discovered it was really dull. It looked like a committee had written it (it has) and secondly you would find it difficult to realize that Jews had ever lived in "Palestine" from reading it.  It was just a catalog of empires that had ruled "Palestine".  
Then I checked number of hits  and : the History of Israel gets 3 or 4 times as much traffic.
What worried me most was the thought that they might be right.  Perhaps the History of Israel was really just a propaganda page. I decided to consult an expert and sent an e-mail to Professor Benny Morris who is the Israeli historian I most admire.  I didn't really expect to get an answer, but it seemed worth a try.  To my surprise I got an answer within a few hours.  He had read the History of Israel and skimmed the History of Palestine and thought,as I did, that they totally underplayed the Jewish connection to Palestine/Israel.  He also thought that if they wanted to join the two pages they should call it The History of Eretz Israel - Palestine.  That brought a smile to my face.  I can only imagine the consternation that would cause them.  He told me there were errors in the page that would be remedied by reading his book, Righteous Victims, but agreed that the Jews didn't suddenly disappear in the first century.  He told me the introduction was a bit propagandish.   I'd publish his letter here, but it seems rude.  He didn't expect it to be published.

I told the History of Palestine people what he said and gave my opinion which is that there exist two parallel narratives related to Israel/Palestine, and that the best way to avoid conflict is for us each to tell our own version of the narrative. Otherwise we will just be at each others throat all the time.  To some extent we are.  The Israel-Palestine issue causes more conflict in Wikipedia then any other.

After that I avoided Wikipedia for about six months.  In the mean time various editors changed the History of Israel.  they completely re-wrote the introduction and entered details of what it was called at every stage. Under Moslem rule it was always a province of Syria and never called Palestine.  Some of what they did was messy but some of it was good.  At some point I noticed nobody was doing much so I went back in and  fixed things up.

Recently the good people of the History of Palestine came back again. This time I told them that I thought it was their page that should be deleted (and then I ordered Benny Morris's book). I said "Palestine" only existed under the 30 years of the British Mandate and it is now part of Israel. Countries called Israel have existed in the past (during the Jewish revolts against Rome they called the country Israel). I pointed out that Hebrew dates back to at least 1000 BC and developed in Palestine/Israel.  That Judaism is just as old and also developed locally.  I didn't say it but Islam and Arabic are the religion and language of invaders. All be it long ago.  They went away and so far haven't come back.

On Simchat Torah this year, it rained heavily for the first time in over six months. Hebrew has a special word for the first rain (Yoreh) and for the last rain (Malkosh), this was the first. Every year Jews read the five books of Moses in the Synagogues.  They finish at Simchat Torah, which is the final day of an eight day festival, hold a celebration and then start again.  In an article in Ha'Aretz, Israeli-Arab satirist Sayed Kashua quoted his father as saying that "it always rains at Sukkot".  I suddenly realized that the timing of Simchat Torah - to coincide with the first rains - is no accident.

By the way, in case you're wondering, The Crusaders called the country Outremer: overseas.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

How I became one of world's most influential writers on Israeli history.

About five years ago I worked for a company who didn't have enough work for me. To fill in time I started editing Israeli history related items on Wikipedia.  At first I was editing on the Israel page but then I realized that the History of Israel had almost nothing on it. So I started filling the page in and soon found it quite addictive, ending up buying books so that I could learn more about different periods and tracing ancient Jewish history.

I found out some surprising things, for example that a massive Jewish presence continued for centuries after the destruction of the temple; that the 2000 year long Jewish dispersal was really more of a 1500 year dispersal and that during both the Jewish revolt and the later Bar Kochba revolt, the coins issued bore the title 'Israel'. I also discovered that Judean soldiers had saved the lives of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar when they were under siege in Alexandria.

Wikipedia is an incredibly powerful vehicle of education and a first stop for undergraduates and high school students looking for information.  A major reason for this is that Google will automatically rank the Wikipedia  as the top or one of the top results for any search topic. One of the reasons I know this is that I used to work for Google checking search results.

According to the Israel page gets about 450,000 visits a month and is one of the 200 most visited pages in Wikipedia.
The History of Israel by way of contrast gets about 30,000 visits a month, not as much as Israel but still a pretty major readership.  Of course many of those probably take one look and then go somewhere else, but other Wikipedia editors also use it and material entered in one article sometimes ends up in other articles and, I suspect, in other languages.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia but it generally takes high-level subject knowledge, a knack for good writing and neutral descriptions as well as persistence to ensure that your edits are retained over time.  I have an MA in History from the University of London which focused on the Mandate of Palestine Middle Eastern history and the Holocaust.  I also have an MA in Political Science from Tel Aviv University. My BA in Politics from Sussex University generally focused on Africa.
I'm not that young either so I also have a long memory of Israeli history.

What all this means is that most of the material in the History of Israel is my work and that as one of the primary contributors to the page I am in effect one of the world's most influential writers on the History of Israel.  The downside is that I get no public recognition and that it is very time consuming.

To view a summary of my edits:

A list of my recent contributions:

My user page:


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pulling back to the wall. Israel's next withdrawal?

In the early twentieth century, when France and Britain took over the Middle East, there were two types of Imperialism.  One was slash-and-burn imperialism which strove to take what could be taken from the region and disregarded "native" rights.  The other was a paternalistic imperialism which strove to help the natives and prepare them for independence. Ultimately both were part of the same phenomena, they both considered Europeans had a right to determine and control local affairs, just one did it in a nice way and the other did not.

There were similar trends in US controlled Iraq.  There were those who worked to extract as much oil as possible and get fat contracts for US companies and those that saw their mission as establishing Iraqi democracy and getting out of Iraq as soon as possible.

A similar situation exists now over Israeli control of the West-Bank.  There are the settler, slash-and-burn tacticians who want to take as much territory as they can and the paternalistic Israelis who argue that a Palestinian state is not viable and therefore the Palestinians should be integrated into Israel.  Ultimately both sides are arguing for the same end-result: continued Israeli control of the West-Bank without a withdrawal.

Both sides have an eventual objective  of a single state.  One wants a single state with Arabs and the others want it without. I might add that Hamas are also single state advocates, wanting a single state without Jews.  There is of course no possibility of attaining these ends without violence and the end result is highly unpredictable.  Given a choice between a joint state and a Jewish-only state most Israelis will elect to end the Arab presence so advocating a single joint state is more likely to create a Jewish only state.  On the other hand the only free elections ever held in the Palestinian territories resulted in a Hamas landslide, so clearly that is what most Palestinians want.

The best - and most viable - solution is an Israeli pull-back to the wall ("separation barrier"). That means uprooting all the settlements outside the wall and giving the Palestinians complete autonomy everywhere else. It is also a significant step towards a two state solution.  for years the international community has called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank to some degree and the Camp David accords require that Israel grant the Palestinians autonomy.

All options are fraught with risks for the Israelis, but withdrawing to the wall has a lot of advantages. It leaves Israel in accord with the UN Security Council's requirements, the settlements outside the wall are a bone in the Palestinian's throat, and indefensible by Israel in the long term.  They require an extensive military presence that comes at the cost of preparations for the next war and creates internal divisions between left and right. The barrier has been built as an international border, it contains border crossings and is defensible.

The Palestinians have never actually made a choice between peace and war: they have only made a choice between war and occupation and that is not a genuinely free choice. They can only make a genuine choice for peace if the occupation (or most of it) ends first. By retaining territory Israel keeps a bargaining chip for a negotiated agreement - and all the key religious areas - but not enough territory to prevent the Palestinians from exercising a free decision over whether to sue for peace.

While a single state solution is unattainable without violence, a withdrawal under Israel's terms leaves Israel in the driving seat of the peace process at minimal social cost within Israel and significantly improves the situation of the Palestinians as the Middle East enters its new phase.

Just to reiterate, Israel withdrew from Sinai by 1979, from Southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Israel is (almost) an Arab state

The modern Middle-East was largely created by the French and the British, who occupied most of it in the First World War and then drew the maps according to how they understood the local politics. The two communities which had contributed to their war effort were the Jews and the Arabs, and they were represented at the Treaty of Versaille, where the newly formed League of Nations rubber stamped the boundaries the British and French had agreed.

Major groups like the Kurds had no representation, had yet to develop a nationalist movement and were not players.

In the years that followed, a notion developed that the Middle East was an Arab area and anyone who spoke Arabic was deemed to be an Arab.  This generally worked well for Christians and Moslems but the status of Jews was unclear for a variety of reasons.

One well worn argument says that Jews aren't Arabs because they lived in the Middle East (outside Arabia) before the Arabs conquered it. But that just raises more problems, because most Christian communities also predate the Arabs but are still regarded as Arab. The Arabs of Arabia also predate the Arab conquest and if that is the case, can Arabic speakers outside Arabia really be regarded as Arabs, or are they just subjugated people who adopted the Arabic language? To put it differently, if Indians and Nigerians speak English, does that make them English?

In practice most of the Arab world's Jews left for Israel (for a variety of reasons) and don't consider themselves Arabs, so the issue is a marginal one. Self-identification is a key factor in national identity. If you think you're an Arab and you speak Arabic then you are. If you think you're an Israeli and don't want to be an Arab then you are not, but self-identification is also flexible and people's minds can change.

Altogether, some 35% of Israeli Jews originate from Arabic speaking countries and therefore, are as entitled to call themselves Arabs, as any Arab-American such as say, Edward Said. Their culture is Jewish but also Arab and common features can be discerned if you choose to make that comparison.

An additional 18% of Israelis are Palestinian-Arabs (and generally self-identify as such) and so if we add the two together than more than 50% of the population of Israel is Arab.

By way of contrast, the other European created regional state, Iraq, is 75% Arab, Algeria is about 75% Arab (although it is debatable how Arab the Berber population is), Egypt is 85-90% Arab (Coptic Christians, like Jews, are not defined as Arabs) and Syria is 90% Arab.

Finally there is an inter-marriage issue: about 1 in 4 Israeli marriages is between Jews of European origin and Jews of Middle-Eastern origins, and given time all Israelis will be descended from both ethnic groups.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sleeping amid sacks of Cannabis: My night with Bedouin opium farmers in Sinai

Sometime in the mid-Nineties my ex-wife heard there was a great hike in Southern Sinai, where, while standing in Asia, one can look out over Africa.  I liked the sound of this, so we went to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv and got visas to South-Sinai (it was outside the Sinai coast area where Israelis have visaless access).  These were the years of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and before the rise of al-Qaeda.  Sinai was a pretty safe place at this time.

We caught a rickety bus which goes from the Egyptian border with Eilat to Cairo. The bus slowly crossed Sinai, and after the better part of a day we got off in Wadi Feiran, which is thought to be the site of the biblical battle of Rephidim, where the Israelites beat Amalek and which contains a palm tree forest.
Palm tree forest in Feiran

In Feiran we made our way to a Byzantine convent called Deir el-Banat. The convent is 1,500 years old and looked completely alive (though a bit empty).  At the convent a woman, who I suppose was a nun, looked a bit astonished when we told her we were looking for a Bedouin to guide for the Serbal, but sent someone to find a guide.
The 1,500 year old convent in Feiran
They returned with a tense 15 year old boy who spoke neither English or Hebrew. He demanded some 800 Egyptian pounds to be our guide (a lot of money in Egypt) and did not back down. I can't remember what sum we agreed on but it was much more than we expected.

We were carrying heavy back packs containing food and clothes for several days and our bedouin guide raced up the side of the Serbal mountain range, which is about 2000 meters at its top, so it was exhausting.  At the top it was a plateau and much more pleasant. After a couple of hours hiking through desert, we hit a beautiful field of flowers. I remarked on how stunning they were and he scornfully told me there were much better flowers ahead.

Indeed there were.  We came to a large field, with a hand-dug well and a battery powered pump supplying water. It was very impressive, except that in between the flowers were large Cannabis plants. That and the pods on some of the flowers left no doubt: This was a poppy field. A couple of small children were working in the field.

There was a small handmade tent next to the well which our guide happily entered, motioning for us to join him. We went in and find ourselves sitting in a small space with a bunch of bedouin stoners who were clearly his mates.  Fortunately they were older than him and a couple had been through the Israeli education system so they spoke Hebrew and we could communicate.

My ex-wife was nervous: "Be careful not to show them the soles of your feet" she advised "Its a grave insult among bedouin". This struck me as silly. Would men who had built such an impressive cultivation system be offended by where I put my toes? Besides it was uncomfortable to try and sit with my feet facing inwards. "Don't refuse to drink the coffee" That made sense. Act friendly.
It was clear I needed to keep my wits about me so I refused the offer of a joint. I was happy to drink coffee I told them, but would pass on the offer of Opium tea. With hindsight the air was thick with fumes and it probably made little difference.
Maybe the smoke made me feel comfortable but it was just like sitting in Paul George's bedroom as a teenager. It looked kind of similar and he always offered tea. There was a similar boyish cameraderie. I seem to remember that one of them was a taxi driver.
"Who do you sell to?" I asked. The bedouin who spoke good Hebrew told me that a guy came up from Cairo to buy their wares.
"Aren't you afraid of the authorities?". He said that the path up the mountain was difficult and the army would take a long time to get up it and they would hear long before and disappear into the desert.  This made sense to me. The desert is very quiet and up in the hills noise travels easily. During the day a bedouin can spot a man walking at vast distances - far more than an outsider - because nothing moves in the desert.  The bedouin learn to spot tiny movements across the desert and can tell when it's a man.  I was sure they could race up or down the sides of the mountain range, which they obviously knew intimately, much faster than Egyptian soldiers could get around using the unpaved roads.

There was an old single-shot rifle on the wall of the tent. Possibly first world war vintage. I asked about it and he proudly took it down and displayed it. There was much amusement at my horror when I found it was loaded.

The previous year, he said, the army had raided them. A helicopter appear at night and "shots were fired". He said this with appreciation of the gravity of what had transpired. The shots, he said, gave them time to flee into the desert. I spent most of the rest of the evening planning how we would run into the desert if anything happened. I did a lot of desert hiking at the time and felt confident I could handle a blind race into the desert if I had to.

The bedouin explained that the Egyptians refused to give them jobs because they had lived under Israeli rule and claimed they had no choice but to turn to this line of work. He asked me if it was true that half of the Jews in Israel came from Arab countries.  I said it was and he said that if so, Israel was an Arab country. I was quite stunned by this remark, which I still think was a great insight. I would eventually make this point on the Wikipedia Arab-Jews page. I'll write about that in another blog because it would take too much space to discuss here.

I asked how much the cannabis cost and was told they could sell me a sack of the stuff for some ridiculously small sum of money. I briefly imagined the logistics, thought about spending forty odd years in an Egyptian prison and explained that I would probably not be indulging.

By now it was pitch-black outside and I said I thought we should go and find somewhere to sleep. They took charge and showed us to a cave nearby, which was full of sacks of cannabis, and that is where we slept.

The next day went to the edge of the Serbal and looked out across the Suez canal into Africa. Then we started our descent from the mountain range.

The path we followed down the mountain side went through a series of different rock formations, each of which was composed of the sort of stones you see on sale in new age shops. As we walked, we would go through a whole field of say green rocks, and then red rocks. It was beautiful. We saw extensive terraced farming, with whole Bedouin families cultivating poppies on small, probably Byzantine-constructed (1500 year old) terraces.

In the valley there was a large mud brick village, which we walked through to the road.  After parting from our guide, we hitched a ride in a small van with a friendly Egyptian school teacher.  His van was packed to the rafters with toys and school teaching implements like pens and exercise books which he apparently sold to augment his salary.  He dropped us off on the main road to Sharm-El-Sheikh, where we easily caught a ride with a Mercedes going to Sharm.

Sharm-el-Shiekh had millionaire's yachts anchored in the bay. It was full of five star hotels, which in contrast to the ones I've seen in big cities were single-storey hotels with the rooms as bungalows. There was a beautiful restaurant on stilts in the Red Sea where we sat down for our first decent meal in a week of so.  It was the best meal I've ever eaten.

My ex-wife took a poppy pod home as a momento and after it had dried out I removed the seeds and stuck them in a little plastic box. Years later we took all the seeds we had lying around the house and threw  them in the front garden. We no longer remembered what they were. Only one type of plant grew and it had beautiful flowers. It was only when one of the flowers dropped its petals, revealing a very evil looking pod,  that I recognized the plant growing in my front garden. I quickly got a pair of scissors and removed the pod but because the flowers were very beautiful, I left the ones with petals.

It turned out that if you remove the pod they put out even more flowers in a desperate drive to generate seeds. I decided to leave a couple of hidden pods among the flowers for a possible second wave. After a couple of weeks one of our neighbors spotted the pods, identified the plant and quickly rushed in and uprooted all the flowers thus ending my career growing opium poppies.

A few years later I had a holiday in Gibraltar, where I climbed the rock and saw Africa.  It was just like the Serbal except I was in Europe rather then Asia.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Cycling in Israeli summers: How air-conditioning boils me alive.

Its the end of July and it hasn't rained in Tel Aviv for over three months. The ambient temperature is 30 degrees centigrade by seven a.m. and at night it doesn't get below 23. Humidity reaches 65% and midday temperatures are close to body temperature.
We have no air-conditioning in our house and I cycle to work, which causes constant astonishment in my office. Everyone else lives and sleeps in air-conditioned flats, they briefly step out into the heat as they go to their cars, which are also air-conditioned and then they drive to the office where they again, briefly, step into the heat of the underground car-park before ascending to the air-conditioned office.  So they only have brief encounters with the heat and can't understand how I manage.

Cycling in this heat does require a certain amount of care. I wear sandals, shorts and loose sleeveless shirts in an effort to keep my body from heating up. Gloves are out of the question and I would prefer not to use a helmet, though I do. Its a six kilometer ride which takes me less than 20 minutes, so its not that bad. Once I get to the office I change my clothes, wipe myself down and drink water. In truth, entering the air-con I get a burst of cold air and it feels amazing, as if I can breathe again but its misleading.  Every year without fail the office-air-conditioning makes me ill. You see I'm like a frog being boiled alive - only in reverse.
It takes some time for my body to cool down after the ride and early this year I decided to leave my sandals on because it felt so pleasant. What then happened was that my body temperature very slowly went down.  The air-conditioning is inevitably set to temperatures of 20 degrees or lower and because my body temperature goes down very slowly (by now I'm wearing long trousers and a t-shirt), I don't feel the change.  Perhaps my body has simply adjusted to the heat and can no longer manage winter temperatures.  Either way by the end of the day I was severely ill and faced with cycling home while feeling appalling.

Last week I wasn't feeling well, but wasn't actually ill, so I went to work by motorbike instead. That has a whole set of different problems. Most Israeli bikers wear t-shirts and very often they are also in shorts. The though of smearing my body on the asphalt at 100 kilometers per hour generally motivates  me to wear my  rather ancient Belstaff motorcycle jacket. Its a tough decision because if you do wear it, it gets very hot in summer.  Yes there is a good breeze at high-speed and the jacket has air-vents, but the air just isn't very cooling. Because of traffic-lights and the need to park in the basement, it takes me only a few minutes less to get to work by motorbike then it does by bicycle, so its still very hot.  
At work we were taking an Author-It course last week (that's a technical writing tool), so we were in a different, even  cooler office and I forgot to order lunch.  Then my partner called towards the end of the day to say she had fallen off her bicycle and hurt her knee. She needed me to take her to the emergency medical center. In Israel our health services provide a local emergency service for low to mid-level accidents so as to reduce the load on hospitals.

I biked home and we drove to the Kupat Cholim emergency center in Tel Aviv.  Unfortunately the nurse who was running the show was Ukrainian and rather than take off her home clothes before putting on her white coat she simply made the air-conditioning colder and wore her white-coat over her clothes. Being Ukrainian, she anyway considers normal weather temperatures to be somewhere below freezing so it was really cold and by the time we got home I was, once again, severely ill.  This time courtesy of the medical services. The hot-cold transformations also caused agonizing muscle pains in my legs.

The malls are also extremely well cooled and I recent came out of the Ayalon Mall and found my glasses had steamed up in the external humidity.

I will now do the right thing and take a jacket to work and remember to dress for winter while I'm at my office.  It reminds me of the northern-English teenage girls. In mid-winter, with temperatures below zero you see them wandering around in mini-skirts and short tops. No tights. I once asked why they do it and was told that the clubs are heated to mediterranean temperatures, so they prefer to dress for the indoors because then they don't have to find somewhere to store all the clothing they've taken off.
Girls in Newcastle city center

Monday, July 23, 2012

Remembering Dahab 1973 - 1983

It struck me this week that it is almost 40 years since I first went on holiday to Sinai.  My parents used to drive down regularly in their small tinny oil-cooled Renault 4, in which air conditioning meant opening the window. Sinai was under Israeli rule and peace with Egypt seemed like an unattainable fantasy.
Most Israelis went to Neviot, a Kibbutz erected near the Bedouin community of Nuweiba on the coast, but my parents drove down to the Bedouin community of Dahab, about 100 kilometres further down the coast and a good 500 kilometres from our suburb of Tel-Aviv.  There was a Kibbutz next to Dahab as well, called Di-Zahav and its name was said to hail from the golden glitter in the sand (zahav is gold in Hebrew).  There was speculation that the Israelites might have built the golden calf there.
Those in the know, which somehow included my parents, did not stop at di-Zahav but drove down unpaved roads, along the shore to Dahab. The Bedouin had a series of bamboo shacks there which they rented out, and they operated small, roofless kiosks. The bedouin lived inland, in black tents nestling at the foot of the mountains, and at dawn one would see a young girl in the distance, dressed in black, leaving the tents and taking a small herd of goats into the mountains.  As she started to vanish into the ravines, another girl would emerge with another herd.  This went on for about an hour.
Twice a day, the tide went out exposing a reef covered with fantastical creatures, see-through worms, sea-urchins, star-fish in incredible colours, crabs in myriads of sizes with and without shells and the odd oyster. If you sat on the edge of the reef, you could see multi-coloured fish in all shapes and sizes swimming in the deep.
I used to walk along the shore in the morning and explore the washed up flotsam of one of the world's most beautiful coral reefs.  There were very few tourists, just a few annoying Germans who had somehow got to this rather desolate place with its incredible sea.
There was no need for tents. One simply slept on the sand with a little bamboo wall protecting against the wind. Rain is extremely rare in Sinai and impossible in the dry season. At night the sky was covered in stars and I once counted at least thirteen shooting stars as I went to sleep (I assume I witnessed a meteorite shower).  Incidentally in the wet season there were flash floods which would carry chunks of road away.  As one drove down, one would see large huge chunks of sand, held together by asphalt sitting next to the road.  It looked as though a giant had stuck his hand in the ground, pulled up a piece of road and then deposited it on the ground.
Washed out desert roadway

Sinai returned to Egypt in 1979, after Sadat's impasse-breaking visit to Jerusalem.  It is not part of the promised land or the 1917 League of Nations "Jewish Homeland" and the only settlers were fun-loving leftists who, as soon as peace came, quietly packed up and went home. The peace treaty granted Israelis visa-free entry to the coasts of Sinai but in the early years few took it up. 
In early 1981 my family returned to England. My parents had never taken out full Israeli citizenship and so I was not called up for military service. In 1983 I visited Israel with a girl-friend (Emily Brown, later lead singer of the Hangman's Beautiful Daughters  We were 19.
My old school friends were the Israeli generation most affected by Israel's invasion of Lebanon.  They spent over six months fighting in the Lebanon and were almost universally completely miserable, so I saw no reason to join them (I returned to Israel in the Nineties' and then did military service). We spent a few days in a flat adjacent to the Western Wall (lent by a friend) and went down to Sinai.
We were the only tourists in Dahab.  Well almost.  The first couple of nights, there was an Australian woman who was there with her Egyptian boyfriend.  We slept on the beach and washed in the sea. The Egyptian police didn't like us and took our passports at night, much to the Egyptian boyfriend's embarasment. It seemed politic to pretend not to be Jewish, so I listened politely as he made outrageous anti-Semitic statements.
 I formed a freindship with a bedouin guy who was operating a tiny kiosk and we played endless games of backgammon and chatted in Hebrew. The younger bedouin had all been through the Israeli school system and spoke fluent Hebrew. I remember ordering a fish dinner and then watching as he went onto the reef with a stick and a bit of string and caught me a fish for dinner.  It was delicious. 
There was a small US army base (MFO: Multinational Force Observers, next to Dahab, where a few tens of American soldiers monitored the peace.  Most, as I recall, were black men not much older than me who came from Atlanta. They were very friendly and seemed to have little understanding of where they were. The Bedouin enjoyed their occasional trips out of the base, when they spent freely.  I remember spending several minutes trying to catch the sentries attention as he was too engrossed in his Walkman to pay any attention to me.  The Israeli in me was struck by this failure in his job as a sentry.
I no longer remember how long we spent there as  one's awareness of time would blur in Sinai, and one simply focused on being. The future and the past seemed irrelevant, while the present was entirely stress free.
I returned to Israel in 1991 and a year later Rabin was elected prime-minister and peace almost broke out in the Middle-East.  The Palestinians got autonomy, Israel made peace with Jordan and the Sinai coast turned into "the new Riviera". I visited Sinai many times in that period and Dahab was unrecognizable.  The reef had mysteriously vanished and been replaced by a narrow strip of beach covered in restaurants serving every kind of international food.  they had no chairs, you were expected to lounge on carpets against chopped-down palm trees. Water was pumped from the ground but it was undrinkable because masses of sewage was pumped straight back in. Signs posted by the British Embassy warned of 40 year sentences to those caught with recreational drugs, which didn't seem to stop anyone from publicly smoking cannabis everywhere.
A narrow road ran between the restaurants and their lounge spaces which were directly at the sea-front.  You could buy everything and stay in all manner of hotels - including the Hilton. See for a vision of its present.
It was horrible. I used to periodically go through for a look and some shopping, but I tried not to stay there.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Palestein: The five state (federal) solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict

I read this week of a meeting near Hebron, between Israeli right-wingers and Palestinian traditionalists exploring the possibility of a single state for all.  what struck me was that they seemed to be leaving Gaza out of the equation, so it was a two state solution with Gaza as a separate state. So I thought: why not have multiple states?  They could be united in a federation.
We could have Gaza for Islamic separatists, Central Israel for left-wingers who want a predominately-Jewish state, Galillee (I can never spell that but you know what I mean) which would be a mixed Jewish-Arab state, the West-Bank would be a left-wing predominately-Palestinian state and finally around Jerusalem: this is the part I'm least sure of - perhaps a Halachic state.  I'm not sure about the Negev, perhaps it would be split between several states.
Each federal-state would be fiscally independent but required to make some kind of contribution to a central management body (eg the national-state), which would also manage the water resources and some other stuff.
There would be strict controls on militarization obviously.
The main problem I can envisage right now is what to call my five-state country: Palestine or Israel?
I considered combinations but then I had a brain wave, but considering that its my idea I think we should call it Palestein,

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Putin's visit to Israel signals Assad's demise and a possible new alliance.

The dying Assad regime was the last vestige of Soviet hegemony in the Middle East. At its peak, some form of Soviet inspired socialism governed Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and the Yemen: the Arab world's most populated states.
Socialist dominance in the Arab world was neatly mirrored by its popularity in Israel, where a Labor party managed corporate state followed something akin to the Swedish model and the Kibbutz remains to this day, one of the most successful forms of socialist commune in the movement's history.
It has recently been claimed that the Soviets deliberately fostered conflict in the Middle East
(see The Cold War’s Arab Spring in the Tabletas a means of maintaining their popularity, and it may well be that they overplayed their hand because the 1973 war between socialist Israel, Egypt and Syria directly led to its demise in both Israel and Egypt.
The Assad regime survived, bolstered by its control of Lebanon and a terrifying secret police, even after the Russians abandoned socialism. The Russians maintained loyalty to Syria , even as they changed. Syria was their single most important client state in the Middle East, and remained the sole provider of a Russian controlled Mediterranean port.
This week Putin came to Israel, to open a memorial to the Red Army dead in World War II.  Putin is the first Russian or Soviet President to visit Israel (Gorbachev came after retiring) and his visit is a powerful statement that Assad's time has finally come.
The late Bernard Lewis argued that religion is the Middle East's primary form of identity, and this now seems more relevant then ever.  Religio-nationalist regimes are springing up like mushrooms, with Israel once again providing a kind of mirror to both the Arabs and the Russians. Religious Judaism increasingly threatens to dominate Israel, while the Arab world is now adopting the Khomeini model of religio-nationalism and theocratic democracy.

When Avigdor Lieberman became Israeli foreign minister, his ambition was to bring Israel closer to Russia. About a quarter of Israelis are Russian speakers and the 15% or so who voted for Lieberman's party all admire Russian culture and prefer its limited democracy model to what they see as Western Anarchism.
I have no doubt that Putin's visit was inspired from Israel, but its timing is significant, and it can be argued that Russian Jews have never exercised as much influence as they do now. There are a handful - maybe more-  of "Oligarchs" with close ties to Israel and some of the most important Russian actors and writers live in Israel. This year a Russian-Israeli played for the World Chess Championship in Moscow.
Although Putin's Russia has often been hostile to the West, it has not come from an intrinsic clash of ideologies, but from a sense of historic threat and in that sense, the rapid decline of Western Europe and the USA may have served to free Russia from its fears.  Now, as the end of Assad is in plain sight, the Russians - who have no need for oil - can look around for new clients and although Russia is the Jewish people's historic enemy, the Nazis also made us historic friends. 

Those in the West who call for Israel to be boycotted, assume that Israel has no alternative but to kowtow to Western values, but the truth is that Israel has alternatives - and they may be far worse for the Palestinians.  Zionism was born at the Dreyfus trial, when a central European journalist realized that the values of the French revolution - the emancipator of Europe's Jews - could not prevent Jews from being a fishbone in  the throat of the European sense of identity and that secular Judaism was limited in its ability to bring emancipation.
Zionism has generally remained faithful to the ideals of the French (and American) Revolutions, but it has always been dominated by the East European Jews for whom it was created, and their value system remains at the heart of Israeli society. 
As capitalism falters in the West, so the appeal of partial democracy grows. That is the new Ruissia and this type of regime is spreading. It provides a way for unstable states to maintain a semblance of democracy without threatening the foundations of their society.  Its advantage as a model is that it can become more democratic. Its disadvantage is that it can metamorphose into Fascism.
For many Israelis who are threatened by the culture of human rights and sexual liberation it provides a more attractive model then Western Liberalism.  However before you write us off, remember that more than half the world's Jews live in the liberal democracies (mainly the USA but also France, the UK, Australia and  Canada) and that Israelis are increasingly, more a part of the Anglo-Saxon world than of the Russian and that, as long as Israel remains loyal to the USA, its usefulness to the Russians is limited. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Gulag survivors in Israel: How my uncle survived the war.

My uncle, Fritz Stern, came from Vienna. He emigrated to Israel around 1948, met my aunt (my father's sister, who was from Nuremburg) and together they went to live in Nahariyya, a small seaside resort in the North of Israel which was famous mainly for being full of German-speaking Jews. Fritz had several friends who were also called Fritz Stern.
In 1990, a year or so after the collapse of the USSR, a middle-aged Russian man knocked on their door. when my uncle answered, the Russian gentleman informed him that "I am your son from Latvia".
It emerged that when the Austrians voted to unite with Germany in March 1938, Fritz had managed to get out and go to Latvia, which was then an independent state. It had been part of the Russian Empire until 1917 and managed to win independence during the Russian revolution.

Fritz met a woman in Latvia and married her, I don't know the details but I suppose it had the added benefit of allowing him to stay there at a time when anti-Jewish measures were being taken in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria and when Governments everywhere closed their doors to Jewish migration.
In September 1939 the Soviets and the Nazis signed the Molotov Pact and split Poland between them and in June 1940, Soviet troops entered Latvia (a Soviet area of influence under the Molotov pact) and annexed it.

The Soviets weren't terribly interested in Jews as such, but they were very suspicious of people who had lived outside the USSR and especially of Germans - even if they were Jewish, so they sent Fritz to the Gulag.
I don't know if Fritz knew that his wife was pregnant.  It is possible he didn't, either way those were desperate times and millions were sent to the Gulag.  One month after the Soviet invasion the Nazis invaded the USSR and by the end of the year close to 100% of the Jewish population had been murdered - many of them by Latvians.

The Soviets sentenced Fritz to five years hard labour and he was sent to a camp in Kazakhstan. He told my mother that it was so cold that he had to work to stay alive - that is to stay warm enough (the camps were basically slave camps, see  He told me that he had eaten rats and that he encountered a man who faked Parkinsons to get out of work and kept up the fakery for so long that he couldn't stop shaking when he was released.  He also told me of a Jew who told that camp commander that if he gave him all the camp's bread and 24 hours outside, he could get more bread out of it.  Apparently the man went off and did a series of trades (sounds like Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22) and indeed returned with vastly more food then he had taken.

Fritz said that the irony of the situation was that he was basically grateful to the Soviets for saving his life.  The alternatives in Latvia and Austria were far worse and most of his extensive Austrian family were murdered.

After the war he returned to Vienna - ignoring Latvia.  He once told me that the first time in his life he made a public fuss was on his return to Vienna.  He was on the bus and two Austrians behind him were saying how the best thing the Nazis did was exterminate the Jews and Fritz got up and started screaming. Apparently the bus driver shut the doors and drove to the Police station where the Soviet NKVD took the men away.

Fritz evidently concluded that Vienna was no longer for him and he took himself to Palestine, sometime in the Forties.  I don't know when or how he arrived but he had a photo of himself in Tel Aviv after it snowed and that has happened only once in recorded history: In February 1950.  You can see photos here: (the text is in Hebrew).

Fritz clearly never got a divorce.  The Holocaust in  Latvia was almost total and I suppose his wife must have escaped to another part of the USSR.   So the whole thing was forgotten - at least on his side of the family - until that day in the early nineties when  a middle aged man knocked on his door.

In those days Israel was awash with Holocaust survivors. People with numbers tatooed on their arms were all over the place and I suppose to them Fritz might as well have been at Butlins (a  notorious British holiday camp organization), so Fritz had to shelve his history and get on with life.  It took a few years but Israeli society acknowledged the suffering of its European brethren in the Holocaust with an annual day of memory, which is today firmly engrained in the national consciousness and taught (some would say too much) in the schools.

People like Fritz on the other hand are forgotten and there must be very many of them because at least one and a half million Soviet Jews have migrated to Israel.  Fritz was persecuted  as a German, not as a Jew. The Germans meticulously and apparently proudly, counted how many Jews they had killed, so we all know exactly what happened and how many were killed. The Soviets on the other hand, preferred to hide their crimes and kept no records of how many they had killed or how many of them were Jewish.  There is far less information available or known about the Gulag.

After the Six Day War, Jewish activists like Nathan Sharansky were sent to the Gulag and became known as Prisoners of Zion. I read somewhere that they were the last political prisoners sent to the Gulag. The suffering of these people was publicly acknowledged and they were given social benefits on account of their experiences, but people like Fritz are forgotten.  Yet it seems to me, that they too are part of our national history and it is a pity that no effort is made to document their experiences.

Incidentally, Fritz is not the only person in my family to have come through the Gulag.  My partner's father, Michael, was sent to a camp as a child and grew up in the Gulag.  His family came from a village just inside the half of Poland which the Nazis took over in September 1939 and after a couple of months the German troops marched them to the border and sent them over to the Soviet side. The whole family was subsequently sent to an extensive Gulag camp.

If you found this interesting, you might like to read about how my Grandmother escaped from Nazi Germany on the Trans-Siberian railway and how my father got into England using a fake Polish passport.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ten percent of Israelis don't know their date of birth

 As part of the Israeli governments efforts to make our buildings resistant to earthquakes, it was made possible to sell the roof to contractors who would get an easy ride to adding an extra floor in return for strengthening the building as a whole and adding a couple of rooms.  To do that you need to persuade all the apartment owners  to sign a contract transferring ownership of the roof.  There are twelve apartments in my building. Four are owned by one person, six by two and one by three people. The twelfth is owned by the government.

Its a great deal and everyone signed on, but it has been beset with delays. One of the apartments is public housing (the government owned one) and it proved almost impossible to get an official signature on the deal.  There were also difficulties getting preliminary municipal approval for planning details. 
However, despite the problems, we have now reached the point where the contractor is ready to submit plans to the planning committee and it emerged that the Tel Aviv planning committee requires a photocopy of all the apartment owners identity cards handed over with the plans. 

So I found myself  running around collecting identity cards and scanning them. Altogether I had to collect 19 identity cards.

To my astonishment three of the 19 had no date of birth. Two had a year of birth but no day or month and one has a year and month but no day. Needless to say they are all Israelis who were born abroad: one was born in Iran in the Twenties, another in Poland in the Thirties and one in Morocco in the Forties.
The Pole has a month but no day and was not born during the Second World War; I once knew a man who was found in a paper bag outside the Warsaw ghetto.  The bag contained a spoon on which was etched the word "Olek", which became his name.  Olek used to say the spoon was his birth certificate.

I asked if they knew their birthday.  I was told that the Moroccan lady knows she was born in the Spring. The Iranian gentleman's son told me his father comes from Estafan in central Iran, he laughed at my question and told me that Estefan is larger then the whole state of Israel and that they only had a general idea of when the old man was born, and that his father never celebrated his birthday. He said no-one would fantasize about bombing Estefan's nuclear facility if they knew how big it was. I checked with Wikipedia and found it has a population of 1.5 million.

I recounted this story at work and discovered that I share an office with a woman whose father has no date of birth either.  He was born in Morocco "just before the ninth of Ab" (a fast date in the Jewish calendar). Needless to say it was a home birth (I asked).  He chooses to celebrate his birthday on the 8t of August. 

So I Googled Israelis with no date of birth.  I got surprisingly little response, except for one article in Yediot Achronot, written by an Ethiopian immigrant and published in May 2011, announcing that the 800,000  Israelis (slightly more then 10% of the population) who have no date of birth could now choose to register one if they wished! 

So that's my source. I e-mailed the national bureau of statistics to request an official figure and will update this blog if I get an answer, but it looks like 10% of the population don't have a date of birth. Its worth noting that Islamic countries would not have used the Gregorian calendar before the first world war and that the Moslem calendar is not solar, which is to say that you can't infer from the Moslem calendar how old someone is in solar cycles (months change every new moon and the year is shorter than a solar year). Russia also used a different calendar. 
As for registering births in a national registry, most of the world didn't even register land ownership until the twentieth century. So perhaps its not that surprising.      

Sunday, March 25, 2012

To bomb or not to bomb and whether its just a bluff: Israel, Iran and nuclear bombs.

If Israel bombs Iran, there is no certainty that it will manage to halt the Iranian nuclear program while at the same time the price of oil will go through the roof (the Iranians will probably close the straits of Hormuz), and the main beneficiaries of high oil prices will not be Israel or its allies.
Even if the Iranians have trouble selling oil, if the price is very high, they don't need to sell as much.
Meanwhile, back in the West, the economies are very vulnerable and spiraling oil prices will only make problems worse. The main beneficiaries of declining Western economic power are likely to be China, India and Brazil: the rapidly emerging new world powers.
So there is a good chance that not only will Israel not stop the bomb, it'll also shoot its friends in the foot, while strengthening at least some of its enemies.
The Speaker of the Iranian Parliament said this week that "the Zionists were too cowardly to attack Iran" or words to that affect, and he may be right in the sense that if Israel meant to attack, then it would have done so.  Maybe I'm wrong and nowadays Israel stages endless public debates before attacking, but certainly in the past, Israeli planes suddenly appeared out of nowhere to smash its enemies (think Six Day war, Entebbe, the Iraqi reactor).
Only a few years ago the Israelis suddenly bombed a Syrian nuclear project. So I suspect that if Israel keeps fussing about it, then it won't. On the other hand, maybe the fuss is a tool to get the West to take action. Because that's the thing: Israel can use the threat of bombing Iran to leverage sanctions on Iran and that is now happening. The new sanctions are clearly being designed by clever minds. Iran was recently cut off from the Swift international banking transfer system, and I assume some other clever financial blows will be emerging soon. So the real question is, will the sanctions on Iran work? Will Iran end up like Egypt and Syria in internal chaos? Which is presumably the main idea behind the sanctions.
And who will benefit from the sanctions? The West won't, that's for sure, as all that Iranian oil money gets pumped eastwards to China and India (presumably at a discount thanks to the sanctions), but the main beneficiary would seem to be Turkey, since Iran is increasingly relying on Turkey to handle its oil and finances. Ha'Aretz recently estimated that 13 billion dollars a year of Iranian business is now being handled by Turkey.  So the moderate Islamism of Turkey gains from Western sanctions on Iran, although it remains to be seen if moderate Islamism really exists. Perhaps it’s like moderate Nazism and Israel is just trading Himmler (Ahmadinajad) for Hess (Erdogan).  On the other hand it might be Stalin for Scandinavian Socialism. A dominant moderate Islamism could be a big improvement. Either way it seems that Turkey is re-emerging as a second or third-level global power alongside Iran, assuming Iran survives the sanctions.  

I think Iran will survive, because the West no longer calls the shots. The West may still be powerful, but the world economy is no longer under Western thumbs – an ironic by product of the defeat of Communism.
The nuclear bomb project is actually weakening Iran, because it is paying vast sums to develop a few bombs it can't (and hopefully won't) use. So while Israel won't manage to stop Iran, its made them pay such a hefty price for the damned bomb and it may never have been worth it in the first place.  On top of that, I wouldn't trust Iranian nuclear safety; They may well end up poisoning themselves.

If Iran succeeds and gets the bomb, there is a whole new game to play and its hard to foresee the consequences. The Iranians may choose to distribute bombs to their pals but quite often the threat of nuclear war has the effect of moderating national behavior as the stakes grow higher. The main problem with using the bomb against Israel is that it will not be good for the Palestinians either while Israel will no doubt be forced to respond by developing sophisticated new forms of nuclear counter-weaponry which won't do anyone any good but will keep the enemy at bay.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Remembering Neighbours and Here We Are

There is a photo of my father in my kitchen, it shows him in the early fifties of the last century (or sometime round then), sitting amidst a set of rubbish bins (garbage cans if you're American) reading a script.  The bins say "Unity". A friend admired the picture and asked where I had bought it.  She said she wanted a picture like that for her house, so I told her that it wasn't bought, it was a picture of my father, Heinz Bernard, who was then the manager of a communist party affiliated theatre in London, called Unity Theatre.
Needless to say she hadn't heard of Unity but when I told her that he had appeared in two legendary Israeli Educational TV series, Neighbours and Here We Are, she immediately knew who he was.
In the late 'Seventies and 'Eighties there was only one TV channel in Israel and each of the two series was shown twice a week. They were so popular that they were shown for seventeen years.  Long after Israeli TV broadcast in colour, the two black and white series were still being shown.  That was a age before "celebrities" - many of them people who are famous for being famous - but Heinz, (my father), could not walk down the street without being recognized, and sometimes being mobbed by children.  Very few knew his name, but the entire country knew who he was.  In Neighbours (which was written by my mother), he was "Mr Cohen" and in Here We Are, he was "Dr Sharoni".

Heinz wasn't the only former leftist or top-flight  actor in the two series. Peter Frye, who played "Mr Kashdan" in Here We Are, had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Sarah Amman, who played the doll "Susie Surprise", had been a dancer on Broadway, and the director, Maxine Ellis, came from Beverly Hills, and was the widow of a Hollywood director who had been blacklisted by McCarthy. Thelma Ruby, who played Bella and was coincidentally married to Peter Frye, went on to have a successful career in the West End. The music, which remains popular, was a key component of the success and was written by a former employee of "Sesame Street".

To see the opening of Neighbours:
of Here We Are:

Educational TV's site allows some episodes to be viewed:
Here We Are:

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...