Monday, September 30, 2019

Five Sinai Scenes

1. Crossing the border

The transition into the Third World is immediate. Time slows down. The Egyptian customs officials greet the trickle of incoming visitors from Israel with a lazy indifference.  At the entrance to the marbled Taba terminal there is a sort of podium where visitors are supposed to fill in entry forms. The forms have been commandeered by three men who, in return for baksheesh, fill them in for you. At the bank, my dollars are turned into an unwieldy wad of Egyptian pounds. The ATM machine doesn’t work.

In a Bedouin taxi we speed unnervingly along the twists and turns of Israeli-laid southbound coastal road. No-one’s wearing seat belts; Khaled, the driver, is singing along to a hit song. To the left, the beaches and sparkling waters of the Red Sea/Gulf of Aqaba and the rosy outline of the Jordanian side of the gulf; to the right, imposing red granite mountains, changing hue in the late afternoon sun. 

The once unspoiled desert coast is now scarred with the concrete carcasses of abandoned tourist resorts, a graveyard for the megalomanic developments made in the Mubarak era that failed or were halted in mid-construction. Between these we meet familiar sites like old friends: the Salah a-Din Citadel, the “fjord” and the long stretches of beach where the simple Bedouin husha tourist camps are named ‘Freedom’, ‘Utopia’, and ‘Eden’. Khaled swerves off the main road and we bump down a long dirt track and pull up in what we hope will be ‘Paradise’.   

And once settled in over sage tea and (for those interested) speedily scored some grass from virtually any member of the friendly young staff, and having taken a first glorious dip in the refreshing, clear, buoyant water, Sinai’s magic begins to permeate and the outside world fades into insignificance. The border has been crossed.

2. Heba

Charming, vivacious, in dressed-to-kill beachwear, Heba is chatting in Egyptian- Arabic accented English with two musclebound Israeli guys who answer her in American-accented English. She’s telling a convoluted story about an embarrassing encounter and they are nodding sympathetically. Later we strike up a conversation with her ourselves and discover that Heba, who has “lots of friends in Tel Aviv”, is a yoga instructor who has studied in India and runs a studio in Cairo where yoga is increasingly popular. She discovered yoga only after her children graduated from high school and loves to visit Sinai, despite the gruelling 8 hour bus journey.

These conversations with the outgoing and obviously liberal Heba were less interesting for their content than for the fact they took place at all. In all the years (over 30!) that we’ve been visiting Sinai, this has been the longest conversation I have ever held with an Egyptian tourist to Sinai. Over the last few years we’ve seen an increasing number of young, cool Cairenes at the Bedouin-run beach camps we favour.  The two sides-  the Israelis being in the clear majority - normally keep a respectful distance but now and then a remarkable person like Heba is able to break the ice. Since Egyptians are strongly dissuaded from visiting Israel and most Israelis would feel unsafe in Cairo, the south Sinai coast is perhaps the only place in the region where they can meet.

Heba sets her smartphone to video on the low wooden table and angles it into a frame created by the low wall of the zula and palm fronds of its roof, with the sparkling Red Sea as background. Then, her dark blue wrap fluttering dramatically in the wind, she seems to elevate horizontally with only one hand resting on the wall.

3. Starlight and music

We lie on our backs, stargazing, wavelets lapping at the sand, a balmy caressing breeze.  The firmament of stars numbs us into humility in the face of an infinite universe.

Behind us in the zula, a group of young Bedouin men accompanied by a darbuka and an oud, start singing a traditional song. The long, snaking, hypnotic piece is the perfect soundtrack. Click here  for a taste of traditional South Sinai Bedouin music. 

Later, a hyperactive Israeli man we’ll call Tomer, plugs in a Bluetooth speaker and the tranquillity is shattered by the thumping repetitive beat of an Egyptian hit with lyrics that sound like “mashi mash , mashi mash.” Soon he’s dancing with the young Bedouin in robes. The young Israelis lining the zula, which is now a disco, join in, complete with whoops of delight, hand claps and laughter.  

If you’ve been wondering what pop music from the Arab world sounds like nowadays here’s a link.

Tomer, accompanied by his two young boys, is smitten with the Bedouin (“There’s so much we can learn from them, brother”) and talks up the idea of moving his whole family from the Israeli rat race to the tranquillity of Sinai. He also seems to be on the make, conspicuously ingratiating himself with the locals and acting towards the visitors as if he owns the place.

We hear more of “Mashi mash” and its sister “Heya hey” over the coming days and decide that we’ll look for a quieter place next time.

                                        Playing the simsimiyya

4. Women and children last

No dancing for Bedouin women though. Nor are they to be found among the kitchen or cleaning staff. It’s only along the beach that we meet them, swaddled in dark layers, carrying one bag on their heads and another in their hands. They find a place in the shade and spread their wares; colourful ornate plastic necklaces and bracelets, fabrics and clothes, a long embroidered dress, a kufiyah, a sha’awal, a gellabiya. Once they have made contact, they are charming but determined salesladies. It’s pleasant to sit on colourful rugs in the shade of the zula, sift through their merchandise, and bargain playfully with them in basic Hebrew as they laugh behind their veils.  A waiter from our camp brings them some food. Later we see them kneeling in prayer and then taking a nap.

Gaggles of boys and girls aged from about 7 to 12, are also part of the operation and will not hesitate to use emotional blackmail to make a sale: “You bought from Mohammed and Jud, but not from me!” they complain in Hebrew. We  agree to make more unnecessary purchases on condition that they use the money for school books. They nod solemnly that they will. We give them Bamba and pens for the madrasa.

We interact with these friendly Hebrew-speaking Egyptian Bedouin on a superficial level without understanding their lives, their codes, their tribal laws, how they've been impacted  by the 21st century and by government discrimination. 

If  Bedouin women are allowed to sell jewellery to tourists on the beach, why are they not allowed to work alongside men in restaurants or shops? How would a man like Sayid, the worldly, dashing manager of our camp who alternates between flowing robes and cutting edge western fashion and has sped off to Cairo in his new BMW, relate to his wife, to his daughters? 


5. A trip to Nuweiba

The taxi is two hours late. The driver looks friendly but speaks no Hebrew. I’m sitting next to him and we are all speeding recklessly towards Nuweiba City when we encounter a truck ahead of us. The driver sits on its tail. We approach a blind curve. The driver looks at me with a mischievous gleam in his eye signifying, “Whadya say? Shall I overtake the truck and risk it?” “No, no!” I gesticulate wildly, stay in your own lane!” The driver regards me piteously, revs up the engine and overtakes the truck. I try not to look. We swerve round the curve with no margin for correction and are not killed in a horrific and totally avoidable accident. The driver displays a smug  victory smile.

Nuweiba is a town shut down. In the dusty old bazaar area there are more souvenir shops than tourists. Inexplicably, Nuweiba’s northern and southern parts are divided by about 5 kilometres of emptiness which we drive across to reach the grubby port area for a meal at Doctor Shish Kebab where we are the only patrons. Soon it will be Rosh Hashana and thousands of Israelis will start streaming into Sinai but it seems unlikely that Nuweiba, with so little to offer, will be reaping the benefits of their cash.

                                                                Nuweiba. Photo: Yotam Haviv 

After a depressing urban experience it feels wonderful to return to nature. A wallow in the sea, a walk along the beach in the twilight, crabs scurrying from their holes into the water, mountains growing darker by the minute, the windsurfer skipping across the waves for the last time today.


 Key for the uninitiated: baksheesh - a tip; husha – a simple hut made of palm fronds; zula - a cosy shaded area lined with carpets, cushions and low tables;  oud  - a lute-like stringed instrument; darbuka - a hand drum; kufiyah - traditional headdress; sha'awal - baggy pants; gellabiya - traditional long sleeved garment worn over clothes by both men and women; Bamba  - popular Israeli children's peanut snack; madrasa - school.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ten Days in Brexitland

London: Brexit for ever and ever? 

Landing at Luton airport felt like falling from the skies slap-bang into the middle of a post-no-deal-Brexit worst case scenario.

On the runway a metallic voice on the PA told us that Luton airport was in the midst of an emergency and that disruptions were to be expected. Power lines had been cut all over the country and unusually heavy rain had penetrated the airport’s roof, flooding the floor below. Delays were to be expected. We were 9th in the line of waiting planes .

After finally disembarking, we shuffled, in an endless crush, for our passports to be stamped by overwhelmed immigration officials.  All in all it was a dramatic entry to the UK: disintegrating infrastructure, bureaucratic muddles and climate change shocks all rolled into one.

That initial impression was quickly dispelled as we wandered around the streets of London.  With the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal looking ever more likely, Brits may be deeply divided, confused and even desperate as the October 31 deadline for Brexit looms; but there’s little sign of any of this in London’s bustling streets.

Portobello Road antique market
I had heard that, fearing food shortages, citizens were stockpiling food but as we lost ourselves along the aisles of a major Waitrose supermarket, our provincial eyes dazzled by the tasteful superabundance, the idea of stockpiling seemed laughable.  Nevertheless, according to one report

“Britons have spent £4bn stockpiling goods in preparation for a possible no-deal Brexit . One in five people are already hoarding food, drinks and medicine, spending an extra £380 each, according to a survey by the finance provider Premium Credit. The survey found that about 800,000 people have spent more than £1,000 building up stockpiles before the 31 October Brexit deadline.”

Could this relative trickle turn into a tsunami of stockpiling? It could, according to Amatey Doku, former vice-president of higher education, National Union of Students. Asked “the big Brexit question – where will we be by the end of the year?“ by the Observer, she said:

“No deal will be felt much sooner than we expect. If it is averted, it is likely that it won’t be until the last minute. By that point consumers will go into a panic and start stockpiling food…I think the UK will see the biggest demonstrations in its history […]” 

Where will the UK be this time next year?

Meanwhile, ahead of the reopening of parliament in early September and with PM Boris Johnson’s majority hanging by a thread, reports emerged from Westminster, of a so-called “rebel alliance” to force him to at least delay leading the UK off a cliff. A Tory minister trying to coordinate these efforts noted that this “unholy coalition” consisted of members from, “moderate Labour, Labour frontbench, Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, minor parties, independents and moderate Tories. It’s difficult.”
And there I was thinking that Israeli politics was fragmented.

One of political scenarios the rebels are considering involves a “breach of convention” in which backbenchers would “seize the parliamentary timetable” and pass their own laws, independently of the government (!!). Whether or not this comes to pass, the very mention of such an unprecedented step is an indication of the depth of this great rift in British politics.

On this trip, prices in London were suddenly cheap. With sterling having fallen against the shekel, food, theatre tickets, clothes were all relatively inexpensive. We were able to enjoy some excellent theatre and music in London for significantly less while the Brits travelling abroad are already paying significantly more for their euros or dollars.

Hanging by a thread. The Bridge Theatre's amazing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

No-one knows how all this is going to end. Worse still, it may never end at all. As Jonathan Freedland explained in the Guardian in a piece subtitled, ‘this nightmare will go on forever: “Unless we call the whole thing off, this is our future: leave v remain, remain v leave, Brexit for ever and ever.

Ireland: Green fields, dread and hurling.

Can there be a friendlier people than the Irish? In Israel, people pass each other in the street with, at best, an air of indifference. In Ireland, people will greet you from the other side of the street with a friendly wave. Everyone seemed more than happy to chat, to help, to share a joke.

It rained every day. But between the showers came sudden bursts of sunshine.  We drove (on the left) along shady single lane country roads of  County Galway, entranced as the clouds scudded over fields and forests succored by abundant rainfall into endless shades of green. The rolling hills were studded with contented sheep and cows grazing in the open pasture and all seemed well with the world.

Along the way were neat villages with many well-kept modern houses, some of them quite grand with expensive cars parked in the drive. Even in this rural area it was clear that Ireland (termed the “Celtic Tiger” in the late 1990s –late 2000s boom years) has come a long way since the 1960s, when, we were told, many homes lacked electricity or running water.  The Irish economy is still relatively strong (4% growth this year, a predicted 2.7% for next) but given its close trading ties with Northern Ireland and the UK, economists are warning that a no deal Brexit could radically change the picture.

Meanwhile, on the tranquil banks of Loch Derg, more important matters were at hand. The neighbors of our gracious hostess, tethering their fishing boat to the jetty, offered us two freshly caught pike for supper.  How could we refuse?

Loch Derg

The City of Galway was lively and charming. The Atlantic coast was dramatic and squally and if you ever find yourself in the lovely village of Terryglass in County Tipperary, Paddy’s is a must.

It was only while listening to the radio on the road back to Dublin that the Brexit drama raised its ugly head again. The (Irish) Sunday Times had obtained a full copy of the UK’s classified “Yellowhammer” report on the expected outcome of a no-deal Brexit. Among other disastrous predictions this included [an expected] “return to a hard border in Ireland as current plans to avoid widespread checks will prove “unsustainable”: this may spark protests, road blockages and “direct action”.

"Direct action" sounded ominous. A return to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland (Eire) and Northern Ireland is dreaded on both sides.  A poll found that most people in Northern Ireland would prefer a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Britain rather than a border between the two parts of Ireland. 

Thanks to the 1998 Good Friday agreement the population of the two Irelands, particularly the nationalist Catholics, have been traveling and trading freely across the border. A hard border would not only seriously complicate trade, it could also lead to violence. Our Dublin taxi driver told us that some nationalists had already planted a “warning bomb” some weeks earlier. 

Ireland has a long and bloody history but this short film might help to explain why the question of what happens at the border is so crucial. 

Border flare-ups are not the only concern, the economic implications are no less daunting. According to the Irish Independent, ministers fear that the country will be plunged into a ‘major national emergency’ in a no-deal Brexit. One editorial referred to Ireland as a “tethered sacrificial lamb on the battlefield, as our nearest ‘neighbor’ goes to war with the EU,” and bemoaned the country’s lack of preparation for the worst. 

Dublin on Sunday evening was buzzing but, unlike London, not cheap. We’d learned that we’d be arriving just in time for the “Irish Superbowl”, the 2019 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final, a uniquely Irish event. The two sides, Tipperary and Kilkenny, were considered finely matched. In ‘The Bleeding Horse’ (don’t ask) we joined the friendly locals in watching what one of the most exciting sporting events we had ever witnessed. Playing before 85,000 spectators at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, the two sides swerved, crashed, passed and dribbled non-stop, while balancing the sliotar (ball) on their hurls (bats) before aiming for a goal. 

What a game, and it’s an amateur sport too. (for hurling see here).

A triumphant Tipperary defeated Kilkenny by 28-20.

And at least for those riveting 70 minutes, no-one in Ireland was worrying about Brexit.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The “Most Israeli” Song?

Kobi Peretz

Messing around on the rooftop the other day while listening to a cultural roundup on the main current affairs radio station, Reshet Bet, I heard a new song by the Mediterranean music  singer Kobi Peretz called “Barukh Hashem”(Thank God). The presenter - Vered Yiftachi-Green - predicted that it was destined to become a “national anthem” and, after the final strains had died away, enthused: “This is the most Israeli song!”

The arrangement had all the elements of big hits in Israel nowadays: low key, minimalist verses accompanied only by Spanish guitar and oud, leading to an earworm chorus over a thumping Reggaeton beat. Yup, I nodded to myself, it’s a hit.

I hadn’t really paid attention to the lyrics, apart from noting that barukh hashem (thank God) featured regularly and that there was a general self-satisfied hakol beseder (everything’s fine) message. But since this was being touted as the quintessential Israel song of the moment, I decided to take a closer look.

Here’s are the lyrics in a rough English translation:

“The wife’s healthy and everything’s cool at work, there’s food on the table and you’re breathing, so say Thank God.
 If you fall out of bed, try to fall on the right side and believe that everything’s all right and that you’ve been given everything and even if you fell on your face, it left no marks .

You no longer have a reason to run away, sing with me with all your might, take the time to forgive yourself man, Thank God, everything is all right.

For as long as we’re here, if there’s no wine we’ll toast with water, we’ll say Amen, with children on our knees, I haven’t slept for two months, Thank God

So what if you got confused, it happens to all of us in life, so believe, it’s written in the Book.
… You have a million reasons to be happy
 You are everything my brother, you are the force, what a world, you are allowed to yell out man, Thank God, everything’s all right. “

So….the person addressed in the song is a man who has made some sort of mistake, apparently a serious one, since he’s taken a fall and needs time to “forgive” himself. The stress is here is definitely on self-forgiveness and not, for example, on repentance (“so what if you got confused, it happens to all of us”). And, after all, he has a lot to be thankful for, so Thank God.

In the clip, Kobi in trademark bleached hair,wears a virgin-white T-shirt and just to make sure that everyone gets the message, the lyrics appear in sync with the music.

Something about the lyrics needled me. I started to harbor suspicions about Kobi Peretz’s friend (“my brother”). What had he done that now needed to be forgiven and why was Kobi so keen - with the help of God, a healthy wife and a baby - to absolve him?  

Kobi Peretz’s Hebrew Wikipedia entry provided the answer. In March 2015 (after rejecting a plea bargain which would have avoided a prison sentence) he was convicted for tax evasion of 5 million shekels (and more) and sentenced to two years in prison. This was later reduced to 18 months and he was released in July 2018.

Of course, now I dimly remembered the headlines and the heavy hints in the lyrics fell into place. Kobi’s “brother” is none other than Kobi himself and his plea for forgiveness is part of his campaign for public rehabilitation. Kobi Peretz was once one of Israel’s leading Mediterranean music stars with a string of platinum and gold records and sold out shows. But in 2010, his legal troubles surfaced and were compounded by a series of dodgy decisions. His career took a dive and then came the prison sentence.

But he’s still a big star and his slick rehabilitation machine is working overtime. The first song he released after himself being released - “Toda Lakh Mami” (Thank you Mami) - has been watched over 6 million times on you tube. Will “Barukh Hashem” be the key to his return to the very top? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Many Israelis have always considered corruption to be normative but with the September 17 general election on the horizon, the country's various tribes are in an especially forgiving mood in which shortcomings are overlooked and exoneration granted to dubious politicians whose parties they support.

Public response to PM Netanyahu’s multiple corruption charges is a good case in point. While their exposure and his response (attacks against the media, the legal system and the police) has severely alienated his center-left-secular political rivals, his supporters on the traditional-religious-right show few signs, if any, of wanting to ditch him. In fact, as in the previous elections, the only real topic is how to react to Netanyahu's behavior: kick him out, or look the other way and forgive him.

And in the  liberal-left camp, Meretz was in a forgiving mood when it held its collective nose and joined forces with former PM Ehud Barak presently under a cloud of suspicion concerning his connections with pedophile businessman Jeffrey Epstein. “The minute he told me he had cut off all contacts with this person, the road to cooperation was opened,” newly appointed Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz told Israel Radio. ”[…] I prefer to look at the advantages and benefits that this connection brings us.”

As for me, at first I took offence at Vered Yiftachi-Green for characterizing the catchy but deeply cynical ‘Barukh Hashem’ as “the most Israeli” song”.

But sadly, having given the matter some thought, I guess I have to agree.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What happened to Richard Zimler?

    A few weeks ago a friend lent me a copy of the 'The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon' by the Portugal-based Jewish-American author Richard Zimler. Historical murder mysteries are not my literary cup of tea but it was hard not to be affected by the backdrop: the harrowing descriptions of the Lisbon massacre of 'New Christians' in 1506 and the vivid portraits of these forced Jewish converts to Christianity who continued to practice their Judaism in secret under mortal risk.  On its final page, the kabbalist hero Berakiah Zarco, having finally escaped to Istanbul, warns his Jewish brethren in prophetic mode: "Cast out Christian Europe from your heart and never look back!" The book was a bestseller in 1998 and won numerous awards.

Strangely enough I came across Zimler's name again only a few days ago in a news item. Zimler claims that, while promoting his new book "The Gospel According to Lazarus", his publicist, 'John', told him that he had been turned down by two,"cultural organizations that had previously shown enthusiasm for holding an event with me." "They asked me if you were Jewish," 'John' told Zimler, "and the moment I said you were, they lost all interest. They even stopped replying to my emails and returning my phone messages." In later conversations with the event organizers, 'John' was convinced that they were not personally antisemitic, "but they feared a backlash - protests by their members and others - if they extended an invitation to a Jewish writer."

In an article in the Guardian, Zimler wrote, unsurprisingly, that he was: "deeply shocked and upset... It made Britain seem like a place I didn't know and maybe never knew...The situation seemed particularly ironic because I have long endeavoured in my novels to give voice to people who have been systematically silenced by prejudice and bigotry."

Several questions regarding this story remain open. To protect those concerned, Zimler refuses to divulge either the identities of the cultural organizations who allegedly rejected him or the real name of his publicist friend 'John'.  And if Zimler is right  and the present political climate in the UK (at least in literary circles)  has indeed created a "chilling effect" on event organizers when it comes to inviting Jewish authors, then from where was the "backlash" going to come? Militant Labourite anti-Zionists? BDS activists? Palestinians? Not clear. And how come it hasn't yet had an effect on the Jewish authors who (my London contacts assure me) are still still regularly appearing before audiences across the country.

At the same time, it seems far-fetched that Zimler would fabricate the story. He was at pains to point out that he has no connection to Israel whatsoever. He doesn't seem the type to launch a witch hunt against anti-semites and the Observer gave his new book a glowing review; so it's hard to point to an ulterior motive. And perhaps we should also take him at his word when he says that he "never knew" Britain.

In the Britain I knew, throughout  my youth and student years, anti-semitism seemed to be ubiquitous. There was no official discrimination but anti-semitism was still woven into the culture. I was subjected at one point or another to the whole gamut,  from jokes and insinuations through scorn and ostracization to actual physical assault.  Equally upsetting was the experience of meeting a new person and agonizing over when (if at all) to 'admit' my Jewishness. Would he/she still find me worthy or would his/her face twist in an effort to avoid disgust?

Most non Jews were not anti-semitic and I had many non Jewish friends but the thought of having to regularly contend with boorish anti-semitism for the rest of my life was sufficient to convince me to move to Israel.  At the time, "making aliya"  was considered by many British Jews to be an act of almost heroic proportions, but I always thought that the real Jewish heros were those who stayed on to face the anti-semites.

Fast forward almost 50 years. Surely my past experiences have long been superceded by a new, more tolerant reality. People have evolved, we're all surely aware by now of the need to embrace "the other". Actual outcome:  in 2018 there was a record breaking number of antisemitic incidents in the UK for the third consecutive year. Over 100 per month.

    What a contrast then to discover that Germany was taking robust steps to tackle antisemitism, although some would argue, not the right kind of "anti-semitism" and not for the right reasons. 

In May, a no doubt well-intentioned Bundestag overwhelmingly  passed a resolution  (non-binding) titled "Resisting the BDS movement decisively - fighting anti-semitism." It states that "the argumentation patterns and methods used by the BDS movement are anti-semitic" and that its Don't Buy (from Israel) campaign was reminsicent of the Nazi era "Judenboykott".

The only party to abstain was the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Obviously because being far-right they would naturally tend to be anti-semitic and therefore pro BDS, right? Wrong! The AfD had submitted their own motion calling for a total ban on BDS in Germany.  Yes, it's a topsy-turvy world out there in antisemitism politics nowadays and it makes for strange bedfellows.

Naturally, official Israel, from Netanyahu down, was quick to congratulate the Bundestag for taking, "an important step in the war against the boycott and the new anti-semitism."  But there was also a barrage of criticism from left-leaning Jewish intellectuals, 240 of whom signed a petition calling on the German government not to adopt the motion and asserting that,"boycotts are a legitimate nonviolent tool of resistance".  The controversy spread. After Peter Schafer, the respected director of Berlin's Jewish Museum, endorsed the petition, there was a public outcry and he was forced to resign.

Pitching in from Israel, Meretz Knesset member Michal Rozin wrote to German lawmakers that the legislation was, "disturbing and destructive for the possibility of peace here on the ground" The main concern, she wrote, should be the scenario of annexation , "not the campaign of the Israeli government  against the BDS movement which distracts from this grim reality."

Or, as Prof. Daniel Blatman Israeli historian and chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum put it in Haaretz , we are the midst of a "historical revolution in the undertsanding of anti-semitism: No longer do anti-semitic Germans define who is a Jew that must be ostracised from society, but rather certain Jews define who is an anti-Semite or who is a philo-Semite and the Germans adopt their view." This, he argued, was  case of, "functional anti-semitism" that defines Jews and non-Jews alike based on an array of specifications and traits that suits Israel's current nationalism."

In the Richard Zimler story, assuming it's true, the presumption of a fierce anti-semitic response to his invitation  led to a cowardly decision by non-antisemites to bow to the power of an assumed anti-semitic mob and to boycott a Jewish writer, unconnected to Israel, merely on the basis of his ethnicity. The damage to Zimler himself is slight, and the jury is still out on whether his case  represents a trend or was just some weird aberration. It must nevertheless add another wrinkle of concern to British Jews, already appalled by the inability of the Labour Party to deal with antisemitism within its ranks and wondering what the future might hold.

In Germany, a cocktail of residual Holocaust guilt mixed with Israeli diplomatic pressure, produced a resolution that places restrictions on freedom of speech and places the definition of who is an anti-semite solely in the hands of Israel's government and its allies. What is certain is that in the international antisemitism games, Israeli political interests play a key role.

In return for the support of populist leaders in Hungary and Poland who drive a useful wedge into the EU's positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu is prepared to turn a blind eye to what some are calling the "distortion of antisemitism" in those countries. Similarly, the Bundestag resolution has much more more to do with the future of "Judea and Samaria" than the fight against anti-semitism in Germany. In that sense it is hardly less depressing than what happened to Richard Zimler.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Why annexation is a big deal

This is B'tselem's map of Area C  (in red),  the figures might no longer be accurate. 

I made a silent vow that this renewed phase of Tel Aviv Rooftop would keep politics to the absolute minimum. I'm breaking it so soon because annexation is in the air. And annexation is a big deal. 

The annexation in question is that of Area C of the West Bank, which the Oslo accords placed under full Israeli military and civil control but which international law deems "occupied territory". Area C comprises 62% of the land, all of the Israeli settlements and, depending on who you ask, between 80,000 and almost 300,000 Palestinians.  Placing Area C under Israeli sovereignty would leave almost 3 million additional West Bank Palestinians stranded in Areas A and B  - an archipelago of disconnected towns and villages.  Israel might offer the Palestinian Authority a kind of Bantustan 'autonomy' in these islands but, even in the extremely unlikely event that they would accept it, the annexation of Area C would undoubtedly mean the end of the "two state solution", the end of the Palestinian ambitions for their own state and the end of Israel as we know it. 

The argument that under a so-called "one state solution" Israel would be neither democractic nor Jewish has been repeated endlessly.  Netanyahu himself has stated that he is against Israel becoming "bi-national" (a euphemism for one state). But what might that mean in practice?

Imagine this situation: Some four million Palestinians (West Bank + "Israeli Arabs") are irrevocably under Israeli control with no hope of self-determination.  Greater Israel comprises almost as many Palestinians as Jews. In a dramatic meeting, the Palestinian Authority disbands itself. Both sides have thrown the Oslo Accords into the garbage heap of history. Israeli troops are now patrolling the major Palestinian cities, where there is ongoing unrest and daily violence. Areas A and B are being administered by Israeli government officials and the salaries of West Bank Palestinian doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants are now being paid by the Israeli treasury. The Muqata'a in Ramallah, the former headquarters of Palestinian 'President' Mahmoud Abbas, is now staffed by soldiers from the IDF's Central Command. Rightist dreams that the WB Palestinians will be granted political rights by Jordan have been dismissed out of hand by King Abdullah. Israel is fending off a barrage of external condemnations and boycotts (Trump excluded) while internal polarization has never been greater. "One person one vote for Palestinians" has become a rallying cry throughout the world; many Palestinians join the call, others join Hamas.  Manifestations of antisemitism in Europe and the US have snowballed. The stream of liberal Israelis to safer shores swells to an exodus. I could go on ...

The ravings of a disgruntled, self-hating leftie?  Really?  For what, if not such nightmare scenarios, have persuaded successive Israeli  governments to resist appeals by the zealots to apply sovereignty to 'Judea and Samaria' since 1967? Yes, Israel annexed Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but taking the West Bank would be biting off more than it can chew. 

So, anti-Zionists everywhere take heart. If Israel starts annexing chunks of Area C, your day will soon be coming. The country that once claimed to be 'Jewish and democratic ' will suddenly, irrevocably be neither. And, incredibly, all this will accomplished by it's own hand, by "the most right wing Israeli government ever". Together with your most loyal allies, the jubilant Jewish settler lobby, you will emerge victorious.

But what are the real chances of annexation happening?

Well, at least superficially, The signs are all around us. The pressure to annex Area C  has gradually moved from the parties on  the messianic religious right (e.g. Jewish Home) to an ever more militant and religious Likud. On Netanyahu's watch, Likudniks with liberal values (Beni Begin, Rubi Rivlin, Dan Meridor) have been replaced with a young guard of militants which seems to be losing patience with the unresolved status quo in "Judea and Samaria". With some half a million Israelis now living over the Green Line the notion that settlers should be subject to special rules, or international interference,  is to them, anathema. "We win elections," they grumble, "but we don't rule." 

 Moreover, the idea is gaining traction with the general public. A recent Haaretz poll found that 42% of the Israeli public favored some form of annexation (11% full annexation with political rights for Palestinians; 16% full annexation with no political right and 15% "just" area C). Only 28% were opposed to any annexation and 30% didn't know. 

And then, Bibi himself, three days before the April 9 general election, stated baldly  "
Yes. I will extend sovereignty but I don't distinguish between the settlement blocs and the isolated ones, because each settlement is Israeli and I will not hand it over to Palestinian sovereignty." True, given the timing, this was a transparent bid to siphon off votes from his more militant right wing coalition partners, but once on the record it becomes hard to shake off. 

Now comes the statement (June 9, New York Times) by Trump's pro-settlement ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, 
“Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” 

In Israel, (and around the world) this was generally understood as Friedman preparing the ground for eventual recognition of annexation. And why not, given Trump's track record  - recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March this year and of Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017.  It's little wonder that the Palestinians, furious with the Trump administration, are redoubling their efforts not to cooperate with his limping 'Deal of the Century'. 

Some, however, have noted a discrepancy between the "Friedman backs annexation!" headlines and what he actually said. While Netanyahu used the words "extend sovereignty," a phrase indistinguishable from annexation, Friedman used the more diplomatic, "retain" and would not "prejudge" how the US might respond to a unilateral annexation move. 

Meanwhile, exhausted by the recent last elections, held hostage by its prime minister in the sacred cause of keeping him out of jail on corruption charges, Israel is again heading for new elections in September. When the results are in, Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu)  could well hold the keys to Bibi's next coalition yet again. Knowing that, will Netanyahu use the annexation card to siphon off votes from his rival and prop up his fragile regime? You can put money on it. 

If you are a person who wants Israel to maintain its Jewish majority and if it matters to you that Israel remains a democracy, you would want to 
avoid the annexation of Area and C at almost any price and this indeed is what Israel has done up until now. Moreover, no-one is marching in the streets for annexation and 'Let's Annex' flags are not hanging from Israeli balconies. It's not going to happen very soon. It could happen gradually and not in one fell swoop. But for as long as the right-religious camp remains in power in Israel and for as long as Trump remains in power in the US, it will be the threat of annexation - not Iran, not Hezbollah, not Hamas - that will be the biggest threat to Israel's existence. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Re-Remembering David Crosby

              We recently saw the film David Crosby: Remember My Name at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and as I write, I’m listening to his hauntingly beautiful music on Spotify. Sitting close to us in the audience was the multitalented American-Israeli guitarist/songwriter Danny Sanderson (Kaveret, Gazoz etc.)  and next to him, wearting sunglasses, was the actress Anat Atzmon, perhaps the sex symbol of Ashkenazi 1970s Israel (Dizengoff 99). But times have changed and Anat is currently appearing in the Yiddishspiel Theater production of Bistu Shein – a “sweeping musical drama interlaced with the best hits of the Barry Sisters.” Danny has also mellowed with the years. He recently played his classic hits with the Israel Philharmonic. Danny and Anat, like much of the audience, like us, were over 60 and looking it. 

             Soon, we all plunged together with the white-maned Crosby- surprised as anyone to still be alive – through his glorious, tragic, manic life. Completely candid, Crosby was clearly in the mood to repent and used the film as his confession box. Sorrowfully, he mentioned that none of the major artists he had worked with (e.g Neil Young, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Steven Stills) would talk to him today. Amazingly he can still hit the top notes like no other and is performing a recording with cool young artists less than half his age.

             When the lights went up the audience applauded, weakly. I wondered how many of them felt any real connection to his story of rebellion, rock’n’roll and self-abuse set against turbulent America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Beyond the fringes of the Israeli left and the Tel Aviv bohema, that brand of smash -the-system-and-let’s-get-stoned counter culture  never really caught on in an Israel already high from winning the Six Day War. Legend has it that in the early 1960s, Golda Meir prevented the Beatles from performing in Israel since she was afraid that would “corrupt the youth.”

             I only came across Crosby myself (as well as CNY and CSNY) after I arrived in Israel in 1972. Teach Your Children, Helpless, Our House could be heard wafting over many a kibbutz swimming pool from a cassette tape imported by a long haired American volunteer. Of course, I knew Graham Nash, Crosby’s partner in sublime harmony, from the British pop group, the Hollies.

             Later I would play Crosby’s first solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name over and over in the echoing space of our living room in Baka’a in Jerusalem, the glorious harmonies rising to the tall ceiling along with the hash smoke. The album would then be replaced with the other LPs in a long wooden ammunition box I had lugged home from the army. That’s how it is in Israel: the liberal, freedom-seeking culture of the west smacks up against the local reality. An uncomfortable co-existence.

             To this day, although almost bald, I sometimes involuntarily belt out the first few dramatic bars of “Almost Cut My Hair”.

             Playing guitar in an open tunings is always a joy. Apart from creating a pleasant drone, open tunings seem to change the whole playing environment, encouraging you to seek out undiscovered new chords. Crosby has his own open tuning – EBDGAD. Play that open chord and you are instantly transported to Crosby mode. I happened to discover this tuning a few months ago and after a few days of playing around with it wrote and recorded an instrumental that I named Crosby.

             Thanks to Wetransfer I sent my recording to Itai Kriss in New York who added a flute part that I think Crosby would approve of.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


Florentin is in metamorphosis. Ramshackle constructions are rapidly giving way  to new building projects that are springing up everywhere. Here the stylish, Bauhaus inspired residential project designed by Ilan Pivco rises above Florentin's  makeshift sheds. 

The street artists are still running wild for now but, as the building cranes approach, like endangered species may soon have to find richer hunting grounds.

These industrial alleyways populated by metal shops, carpenters, students and artists won't be here for much longer.

But two young architects bought an old store, in a street much like the one above, renovated it, designed it to collect as much light as possible and have transformed it into a flat and studio. Their 
block is slated for demolition but meanwhile...

Spotted in a design studio we visited on' Open Houses' weekend. Tel Aviv separates itself from the rest of the country: a scenario that many would say has already taken place.  

Back to Florentin for some more street art....

A detail of  ceiling in Neve Shechter , a recently opened religious/cultural centre. The wall paintings were part of the original Templar design. Later the building was  called Cafe Lawrence and was used as a cinema for  British soldiers.

Five Sinai Scenes

1. Crossing the border The transition into the Third World is immediate. Time slows down. The Egyptian customs officials greet...