Blog 95: Biden’s America – A Letter from George

Posted January 20, 2021 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

George Kimball is a US lawyer with more than 40 years’ experience, mainly in private practice in his native Southern California.  He now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he met his wife, Diana, during their student days.  George is a graduate of UCLA , University College London and the University of Michigan’s law school, where he now teaches.

We met in 1978 in the UCLA law library California where we were both studying for the California Bar, George curious at hearing an English voice.

George has had a good career. But he tells his law students that what’s best in the profession has nothing to do with “the numbers” or anything else tracked by law firms’ management committees or the trade press.  It’s about the chance to do something useful and especially about the friends we make.

During all these years we have kept in touch, meeting from time to time but mainly through a correspondence in which George has been infinitely more diligent and capable than I. Over the years I have come to appreciate his insight and undersatndinmg of American and British politics and statecraft. Which accounts for the fact that during the extraordianry convulsions which have marked the finale of the Trump presidency George was never far from my mind, as I wrote him Monday evening.

On Tuesday morning I found this letter in my e mail in box. A letter so insightful that I felt that I simply had to share it. So with George’s consent here it is, reproduced in its entirety. With sentimeents which I share.

smo/20.01.2021

Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103

January 18, 2021

Dear Simon,

How very good to hear from you, my good friend.  A proper letter has been on  my list of things to do since the holidays and your message gives me a chance to send at least a few lines by way of response. 

First things first—very glad that you and your family are safe and well.  One reads here that Israel has, on the whole, managed the pandemic and vaccinations rather better than most other countries, thanks to its small size and generally high levels of competence.

Here, responsibility for the pandemic has here been diffuse, as befits a very large federal country, and the results are (not surprisingly) mixed. Media reporting has been decidedly uneven, for reasons of competence and partisanship.  Until recently, they were anxious to blame Trump personally or his administration for everything,  including all deaths.  He has of course said many stupid things (as on everything else) but in truth, the federal government has done some things well (eg, having GM and Ford produce hundreds of thousands of ventilators) and others badly (eg, a slow walk on testing, or failing half a dozen  years ago to replace depleted stocks of masks).

Statistics are poor and often misleading, here and (I suspect) elsewhere.  Numbers of infections are likely vastly understated, with many cases untested, asymptomatic or little different from ordinary influenza. 

Numbers of coronavirus deaths are likely over-stated, as anyone who contracts the virus is counted as a coronavirus casualty, even if they were at grave risk on account of other conditions – as one would expect when the overwhelming number of deaths is among people aged 75, 80 or more. On the other hand, I’ve seen credible (if little-publicized) studies suggesting that total numbers of deaths only modestly exceed what would have been expected as a statistical matter in any other year, from the usual causes.  Perhaps that has changed with the recent mutations and surge in infections, though I doubt it, for treatment methods have improved.

Operation Warp Speed, the public and private partnership to develop vaccines, is among the most successful such projects of all time – comparable to Project Apollo (the man on the moon) and the wartime Manhattan Project (to build the atom bomb, with larger British contributions than were commonly acknowledged). 

Administration of vaccines has been left, appropriately, to the states and local health departments: long undercapitalized, which now shows, and burdened by bureaucratic guidelines of asinine complexity: first doctors and nurses (appropriately and obviously), then a long, debatable list of workers deemed ‘essential’, then various classes of older people, with lesser priority, according to initial guidelines, because the older population is – I kid you not – insufficiently diverse.  States made matters worse, as in NY, by threatening heavy fines ($1,000 per injection) for any vaccinations that did not meet complicated criteria. (No, I’m not making this up.)

A more sensible policy would focus upon populations at risk – including inner cities, dense metropolitan areas such as NY and older populations with simple criteria. We seem now to be moving toward vaccination by age group, which is straightforward and requires only ordinarily identification, such as driver’s licenses.

Competence, alas, is not all that it might be.  When I was about ten years old in the early Sixties, the Sabin oral polio vaccine was administered (in two or three doses) at school cafeterias to all children during a few weekends. You just had to show up and swallow the stuff, poured over a little sugar crystal, and washed down with a little orange juice.  The Economist recently reported that in 1947, New York  City administered five million smallpox vaccinations in a couple of weeks. This is more complicated, but not as difficult as government has made it.

As for the states in general and Michigan in particular, it’s my impression that some states (eg, Florida) have been more successful than many others (in Florida’s case, with less draconian restrictions than elsewhere).  I’ve not read about Hawaii, which you mention, but would not be surprised if they have done well, as a small state with most of its population concentrated in or around three or four towns on just three of the islands. 

Some states whose governors were lionized by press and thought likely to join the Democratic ticket (eg, New York’s Cuomo and Michigan’s Whitmer) may not have entirely deserved media laurels.  Both states, doubtless with the best intentions, sent older people with infections to nursing homes, where they infected many others.  In hindsight, a huge mistake.

Here in Ann Arbor, the university seems to be managing rather well, as one would hope with a world-class medical center (comparable to UCLA, Stanford and others) and an immunologist as president of the university.  There have been outbreaks among students in residence halls and among students inclined to have parties. Most instruction is now remote and by most accounts, effective, though inconvenient and hardly ideal.

Here, as elsewhere, the burden upon some small businesses – restaurants especially – is painful to observe, and based largely on some dubious, small scale studies (which Diana, with her master’s degree in public health, reviewed and found seriously deficient). Faced with a crisis, government feels obliged to do something, sometimes arbitrarily and ineffectually, at the expense of people without clout.

There are some sorrows, of course. A handful of Diana’s friends have been infected. All have recovered.  Our parish has buried a few parishioners.  At a nearby high school, five students are now orphans after losing both parents to the virus.

Overall, the country as a whole has done a little better than some other advanced, urban, industrial countries (eg, Britain and Italy) but not quite as well as some others (eg, Germany).  But we might have done a lot better.

As for last week’s events, which shocked us all, we could have a long conversation over dinner about all that, but I’ll hazard, among friends, some general observations.

Our institutions are and remain resilient, despite Trump’s demagogy and delusional incompetence.  The vice president ignored Trump, took the excellent advice he received, and both Houses reconvened immediately to complete their essentially ministerial function.

It appears that most of the government, including the military, have in fact acted on a basis very much like the 25th amendment, effectively ignoring Trump and leaving the business of government to sane, sensible hands.  (Something like this occurred during Nixon’s final days, when there were concerns about irrational acts, though I doubt Nixon himself seriously meant some of his late-night remarks.)

Trump’s epic narcissism and personality explain much about his inability to accept or admit defeat, and so shatter illusions upon which a fragile ego depends. I tell my European friends (to us, Britain has been and remains part of Europe!) that a recent biography of President James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln, entitled Worst President Ever will need a new title for any future edition. 

Trump is an ignorant, nasty, mendacious man in some respects a buffoon; but also a cunning demagogue and self-promoter, with the demagogue’s gift for finding scapegoats and saying out loud what some believe but cannot be said in polite company.  He succeeded for a time in convincing some that he was a champion of those ignored and despised by elites (what Hillary in an unfortunate moment called the deplorables).  The imagined him a fighter who would ‘drain the swamp’ and even roll back the clock; when in fact – as is now plainer than ever to see – he cares nothing about anyone except himself.  His personality seems like a swirling black hole of narcissism that sucks up everything. It does not, however, follow that most who voted for him share his attitudes and opinions, although some do, or believe his endless lies.

He will soon be gone.  He has done a public service by thoroughly discrediting himself.  So have the craven Republicans, such as Senators Cruz and Hawley, who coveted the favor of his faithful by indulging his lies and delusions, even when they surely know better.

He may also have demolished the remaining value in his principal commercial asset, the Trump name and brand, which stood for a certain ostentatious, gilded glamor.  But now?  As hotel and resort properties endure an epic depression from which they may not soon recover?  It is scarcely an ideal time for a serial bankrupt to refinance $300,000,000 in debt that he has personally guaranteed. Good luck with that, let alone raising money for a new broadcasting network. In bankruptcy court, he will need a better legal team than he fielded for his scattershot challenges to the election.  Unsurprisingly, the judges – especially the kind of conservative judges he appointed – followed the law.

As for the future, I’m not so pessimistic as many, but there are concerns. 

As you saw in the note I shared with you about the election, the electorate as a whole still seem fairly sensible. They are ill-served by partisan media echo chambers, who chase advertising revenue by fueling anger; and at the moment, they are ill-served by both political parties.  Like other countries with representative government, we need healthy parties of the center-left and center-right.

Both parties must rediscover the difference between loyal opposition and ‘resistance.’  It may be the duty of the opposition to oppose (as Disraeli is supposed to have said) but no recent US President (not even Trump) quite compares with Pétain, Laval or Quisling.

 Trump has peddled nativism, isolationism, protectionism and other foolish snake oil.  Abroad, he has fawned over strongmen that he seems privately to admire and envy, while irritating allies (even Canada!). His deal-making skills (legendary in his own mind) have proved nonexistent.  On the other hand, his administration’s role in the Abraham Accords seems commendable, and at home – mostly out of the President’s line of sight – some useful things have been done to loosen the animal spirits that propel the economy and also to stymie some of Trump’s worst instincts. Until the virus arrived, wages and employment rose among many of the less fortunate, and some minority voters evidently noticed.  The body politic would be healthier if both parties competed for all votes and neither party could take any group for granted.

Among Democrats, there are those who would re-enact the New Deal (which achieved some useful things, but prolonged the Great Depression), extend political control over the economy in the name of various worthy causes, largely for the benefit of rent-seekers, without advancing those causes. We may now see much of what Britain once knew as ‘industrial policy,’ with similar results at immense costs. 

To Biden’s left are those who – like their ‘woke’ counterparts elsewhere – believe our history and institutions are essentially engines of oppression and racism and imagine that all opinions (indeed everything) are defined by race, sex and the rest. Their understanding of the country’s complicated history is, to put it as charitably as possible, selective. In a polyglot country like this, founded upon a secular creed embodied in the founding documents, identity politics are divisive and ultimately poisonous.

Their counterparts in Britain denounce long-dead slave traders but forget Wilberforce and suppression of the slave trade by the Royal Navy. They spray graffiti upon Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, recalling the unkind things he said about Gandhi – forgetting the murderous, industrial strength racism that the great man helped to defeat.  As for long-unfashionable empire, people forget that its (unavoidably mixed) legacy includes several reasonably successful countries (including India) governed by Westminster-style parliaments and the common law.

Both US parties (and, I surmise, most of their counterparts elsewhere) have lost all sense of fiscal restraint. For this we shall pay, likely through inflation. Modern monetary theory amounts to the notion that one can carry on spending so long as one still has checks or a credit card.  Churchill’s friend Brendan Bracken, who owned the FT, once said that Keynes would make inflation respectable, as he did.  The same danger is with us now.

Our friends abroad should be concerned about a continuing drift toward isolation. A generation has grown up convinced (and taught) that American power is essentially malign and should rarely, if ever, be exercised.  Trump adopted the slogan ‘America First’ – a phrase made famous by those who opposed intervention against Hitler.

In the Fifties, Churchill would privately say that Americans had to ‘think imperially’ meaning worldwide responsibility, as many Presidents and secretaries of state did, while eschewing that word for obvious reasons.  There’s little taste for that now, or sense that, for all of the errors and blunders, America’s postwar hegemony has been, on the whole and especially in comparison with former and present alternatives, benign.

If we are true to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, we will muddle through, as I believe we shall after Trump and now a predictable lurch to the left.  But challenges long evaded must be faced: fiscal incontinence, unsustainable entitlements, wretched schools (too often, jobs programs for teachers’ unions), sclerotic and expensive bureaucracy, the decline of families and other traditional anchors for civil society – anchors that screens and surveillance capitalism now menace.

I could go on, but mustn’t, as I have classes to prepare for Wednesday’s first day of the new semester and much else.

Forgive the rambling.  I hope some of this has at least modest interest.  Please give Susie our love.

It’s hard to be altogether downhearted about a world that includes such friends.

                                                                                    Best always,                                                                                               

Blog 94: The Age of Uncertainty

Posted December 27, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

“Der mentsh trakht un got lakht. Man plans and God laughs.”

Ancient Yiddish proverb

As 2020 draws to a close, never have these words been more true.

My late father, a wise largely self-educated gentleman, once remarked that By Definition The Unexpected Always Happens.

I have had plenty of time this year to think about this. It’s the By Definition that I find profound.

No one expected the Covid 19 pandemic. Just like the 2008 financial crisis was also unexpected. The lack of preparedness explained and excused by the unexpected nature of the occurrence. Only both the Covid pandemic and the financial crisis were foreseen. It’s just that no one, or no one in authority, listened. There are other notorious examples. Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Egypt’s You Kippur crossing of the Suez Canal were equally “unexpected”. Here too the warning signs were present. Here again no one listened.

No doubt in common with many others, I have spent time this year trying to figure out how and why this happens.  Even how to avoid it happening again. With little success.

But if I have learnt one thing from this year, its that the cosy near certainties of life with which my own and successive generations in the West have grown up and had come to take for granted are an illusion. One that we had better get used to.

Everyone’s experience of this year has been different. But few can have expected just how different life has become, nor how quickly, just how much of what we took completely for granted is no more.

One should not over generalise. Nevertheless think it is mainly true that those of us who are no longer dependent on work for our livelihoods, who have homes with gardens and are fortunate enough not to live alone, have had it easier. On the other hand we are the people most at risk, most afflicted with anxiety, an anxiety made all the more real by loss of contemporaries. Who among us has not lost family, friend or meaningful acquaintance to the dreaded Covid 19?

No one is unaffected. Parents with children, often confined to flats, working from home in cramped improvised accommodation, often struggling with so called home schooling, where it exists at all; or furloughed on reduced incomes wondering if their jobs will exist at the end of it. Freelancers and the self-employed, their occupations no more or businesses destroyed and savings exhausted. Children, home from school, education interrupted, unable to play or exercise. School leavers, their exams wrecked, travel plans abandoned, prospects for work or university upended. The list goes on.

And yet. I have been amazed by peoples’ strength and resilience, including my own and that of my family, how like everyone else somehow, we have just had to get on with whatever life was throwing at us.

In many ways it has been a tough year.

For our son in his special needs kibbutz in Northern Israel experiencing months of near total isolation and reduced activities.

For me and my wife, 19 unplanned weeks in Israel, for considerable times in isolation or lockdown, to be closer to our son and my wife’s then very unwell sister. Eventually by way of Istanbul (direct flights by then but a memory) back to London. What bliss.  Then unexpectedly needing shoulder surgery and subsequent hospitalisation for a chest infection.  Earlier an upsetting family trauma, no doubt impacted by the pressures and heightened emotions of Covid 19 lock downs. And now, not entirely unconnected, an unplanned winter in South Africa where I am writing this.

Our own experience of life upended may be particular in its own detail but to a greater or lesser extent is mirrored in the lives of pretty much everyone we know. Nothing is as it was. Nothing is as was planned. No one any more knows what to expect.

We now live in an age where uncertainty is the norm.

Anyone in the UK in February who anticipated life as it has been this year would have been thought unhinged. Yet looking around the world, listening to epidemiologists did we even know the word then?) the signs were there. Indeed some countries’ leaders, New Zealand, and Israel among them, did get there fast. Most did not – President Trump not at all.

Its strange. The people whose leaders were most loath to recognise what was coming – whether for fear of spooking their populations or because, as in the case the UK, they  knew how woefully unprepared they were, were magnificent when it came to it. Time and again, including right up to the present time, the British government has proved dilatory, its too little too late approach predictably guaranteeing the worst of all worlds, incompetence built on incompetence.

I have been amazed by how forgiving of their government the British have been, by their strength and resilience and, with exceptions, their sheer common sense. Mathew Syed in today’s Sunday Times says it well:

“Things have been tough but we have also seen the best of humanity: NHS staff, police and other front line workers who have done their duty in trying circumstances; Deliveroo drivers and supermarket checkout staff who have held the line; thousands who volunteered for clinical trials of the vaccine, putting their health at the service of the community.

Whenever we have wavered over the past 12 months, whenever our societies have looked vulnerable, it hasn’t been those in high command who have delivered for us; it has been the decency in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Not everyone, of course, but a critical mass of people doing their duty. Individuals looking to help others. Citizens who may have selfish desires but who also recognise that societies cannot flourish unless there are those prepared, at times, to put the public interest first. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

So it is that, perhaps surprisingly, as I look back on the year it does not seem all bad. Rather the contrary. In the great journey of life 2020 has been a time of intense experiences. With uncertainty the rule, everyday becomes an adventure, every happiness a moment to be savoured, every challenge overcome a satisfaction, every friendship enjoyed. “We need the bad times so as to be able to value the good times” a devoutly Christian friend once said to me. So much previously taken for granted I now value:  flowers in the garden, walks in the park, a drink with friends, time to read, amazing screen content at the click of a remote, video calls across the planet, a grandson’s bar mitzvah somehow shoehorned in between restrictions. Even just waking up each day. Above all thanks to our extraordinary scientists, also unimaginable a year ago, the prospects of a vaccine, The cup half full. No, better than that. A year like no other lived to the full, uncertainty embraced, challenges overcome, every good moment appreciated.

L’chaim! To life! Never was this Jewish toast more apt.

smo Simon’s Town, WC, South Africa 27.12.20

Blog 93: Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l

Posted November 9, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

It with the deepest sadness that we regret to inform you that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z’’l) passed away early this morning, Saturday 7th November 2020 (Shabbat Kodesh 20th MarCheshvan 5781

I had the privilege of knowing Jonathan Sacks for many years.. At the young age of 42 he had recently been appointed Chief Rabbi. I was in the throes of trying to set up Langdon College. It seemed an impossible dream.   Rabbi Sacks set out to be a unifier famously saying “If we cannot pray together we can work together “. As a founder member of a Masorti (Traditional or Conservative in American terms) Synagogue, one not part of the United Synagogue of which Jonathan was Chief Rabbi, I was curious to see if that was true. Which is how some days later Jonny Manson (United Synagogue), Barry Welck (Reform) and I (Masorti) found ourselves in the then offices The Chief Rabbi in Woburn Square, telling Rabbi Sacks of our plans to set up in the Manchester area a Jewish Special Needs College for the 17-21 age group. The College was to be named Langdon College after Margaret Langdon, the social worker who had set up Delamere Forest School in Cheshire, where as parents Jonny, Barry and I had met. It was to serve the entire Jewish Community, irrespective of the religious affiliation of the families from which it would draw its students. Would the Chief Rabbi become our Patron?

“Delighted” was his immediate answer.  

No one could have helped us more. No one could have been more enthusiastic or committed. Guest of honour at College’s opening ceremony,  Rabbi Sacks took his role as Patron incredibly seriously, introducing us to potential donors, his door always open to encourage or provide practical assistance – as with his introduction to the all powerful Manchester Beth Din who helped us navigate the choppy waters of  having sufficient religious observance to satisfy the Orthodox whilst maintaining an environment that was open to and comfortable for all.

Once a year, as Chair of Governors, I would turn up, at 09.30 at the Chief rabbi’s the official Residence in Hamilton Terrace to give my annual report. Formal in the sense that suits were expected, Rabbi Sacks was always immaculate, I would be ushered in to the small dining room, four mahogany dining chairs around a round mahogany dining table, coffee tray at the ready. Informal in that Elaine, Jonathan’s wife usually managed to pop in to ask after Susie and our family, at the same time making it clear that this was home as well as Residence.

Over the fifteen years that I served as chair of Langdon College Jonathan Sacks never missed a meeting. And as we got to know one other better and as our conversation ranged over an enormously wide range of issues I came to realise what an intellectual giant I had happened to attract to Langdon College.

Possibly by reason of his modest origins and apparent insecurity in the face of the guardians of Orthodox Judaism, Jonathan Sacks clearly attached importance to his position as Chief Rabbi, as he liked to be addressed by all comers. Yet beneath that rather awe-inspiring exterior he was also remarkably sensitive. At one of our early meetings I found myself telling him that as a founder member of a Masorti Synagogue, one not even recognised  as properly Jewish by the United Synagogue of which he was head, I struggled with addressing him as “Chief” or “Chief Rabbi”. “Never mind, I call you Simon and you call me Jonathan” he replied. And so it was, in correspondence, in conversation and in public, except on formal of occasions when to avoid embarrassment of course I would use his title.

I don’t think I had realised quite how unusual this was until I was told the story of the speech rather bravely  given by the groom,  son of friends of ours, at his wedding to one of Jonathan’s daughters. “Chief Rabbi” he opened, “or as you like to be called more intimately, Chief Rabbi ….”

It also soon became clear to me that Cambridge educated Jonathan Sacks struggled with his dual role as titular spiritual leader  of the Jewish Community in the UK  and Chief Rabbi of the mainstream orthodox United Synagogue, at a time when in common with other faiths, traditional orthodoxy found itself increasingly at odds with changing British society.

As a spiritual leader to the nation, and as explainer and ambassador for Judaism, Jonathan Sacks had no equal.

So many times I was in awe. As when the late Bob Phillis, then Chief Executive of ITN, at the time (this was before SKY News took off) one of the UK’s  two leading broadcast news organisations, invited me to a 35’s Dinner  at Claridge’s at which Jonathan  was the guest of honour and after dinner speaker. At that time, I have no idea if it still exists, The 35’s was a by invitation dining club of the 35 leading British media Chairman and CEO’s. Apart from Jonathan, Michael Grade and  Martin Sorrel I was probably the only other Jew in the room. I will never forget Jonathan  explaining to the Jewish Sabbath to his non-Jewish audience. The Sabbath, with its prohibition of any manner of work, travel or use of energy always seems something of a mystery to non-Jews.

It was the time of Thatcher. “Think of Regents Park surrounded by some of London’s most expensive and desirable real estate . The measurable economic gain from its development would be colossal, not only in the value of the offices, apartments and houses being constructed, but in the ever rising property tax revenues which would accrue to government each year.” Whilst what would be lost, the space and quietude of Regents Park itself, would be immeasurable. That is how to think of the Jewish sabbath.”

My time at Langdon overlapped the years I served as a member of the Board of the British Library. Astonishingly I discovered that Jonathan Sacks, giant scholar as he was, had never once even set foot inside the BL. This I set out to remedy, arranging a Chairman’s invitation to luncheon in the rather magnificent BL Board Room. Kosher food of course, but more remarkable was a private exhibit mounted containing not only such treasures as the Golden Haggadah but also the original United Synagogues Act of 1870 under which the United Synagogue and the office of Chief Rabbi  were established.   Totally unexpected, I  could see how deeply moved he was that the Library should have gone to such trouble.

Present at the lunch were the senior curators of the Library’s world renowned Hebrew collection. We were all astonished by Jonathan’s familiarity with texts within the Collection and his ability, without any preparation, to engage in erudite  discussion with two  of the world’s leading curators.

As part of its national remit periodically the BL mounted exhibitions of its astonishing collections. For the year 2000 The Library put on a massive Three Faiths Exhibition. The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi were invited to take part in a colloquium  marking the opening of the  Exhibition – sadly Islam declined to be represented. It was clear to everyone that Jonathan Sacks was in a league of his own.

If Jonathan was a giant outside the Jewish Community,  he struggled within it.  

Our family had its own example when our daughter Genevieve was getting married. Adam, Gen’s husband to be, had grown up in North Manchester near where we built Langdon College. His mother Janette, sadly recently widowed, was a remarkable friend to Langdon College as well as to our son James whilst he was student there. Jewish Tradition has it that whilst weddings are usually hosted in the synagogue of the bride’s family, the Shabbat before the wedding  the groom is honoured by being called to the Reading of the Law in his own synagogue, wherever possible with both families in attendance.

What was particularly lovely on this occasion was that it had been arranged that the whole of Langdon College would attend and then Janette and Langdon would host a reception afterwards in honour of Genevieve and Adam.

All was great until the Sunday before the call up. The Rabbi of Janette’s synagogue, where she and her family had been congregants “for ever”, had discovered that the wedding ceremony was to take place in the Masorti synagogue to which Gen belonged.

“No call up” in that case ruled the Rabbi, unless……. Genevieve and Adam would agree to a second “properly kosher” wedding conducted privately by the Rabbi afterwards.

Marriage under Jewish law requires only a canopy, two Jewish witnesses, a cup of wine and by tradition a glass for the groom to stamp on. There was no way Gen’s wedding would not be kosher.

“I can’t speak for my daughter  and her husband to be” I told the Rabbi “but tell me,  if a Jewish man and wife stand before you and ask you to marry them, what do you say?”

He had no answer.

Telling him of the connection with Langdon College and its importance to the Chief Rabbi, I asked him to speak to the Chief about what was happening and the damage this would cause.

It was not long before the phone rang at home. “Simon” said the familiar voice, “its Jonathan. Rabbi xxxxxx just called me. (He has a name but since he is now a rabbi at a London community I have no need to mention it) I am so sorry. You know it’s the last thing that  I would have wanted. But he’s a United Synagogue rabbi and I have to support him”. Jonathan knew my feelings. I did not have to elaborate. I knew his weakness. We remained friends. In large part because I never had to pretend. Equally he knew that I  would never embarrass him in public.

As time passed I came to realise that perhaps one of the reasons for that friendship was because of what I wasn’t.  Although Jewish, with a commitment to Israel, I wasn’t quite the usual N W London member of the Jewish Community. I grew up in Harrogate, a small  perfectly anglicised community completely integrated into its town. I was educated at Bootham, a Quaker school, where I had absorbed much about Christianity, its history and development. Thanks to a weekly class given by another rather unusual rabbi, Solomon Brown from Leeds, rather surprisingly I also knew something about Judaism.

And I was Masorti, traditional but free thinking. Indeed I sometimes wondered if secretly, had Jonathan had his time again, and arrived a couple of decades later, he might have found his place there too. Certainly he would have found it more comfortable without the Orthodox Dayanim (religious court) looking over  his shoulder,

Perhaps it was with this in mind that the phone rang another day,  asking if I would come to the Residence. The Chief wanted to ask me something. That something was to become a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews of which as Chief Rabbi Jonathan and the Archbishop of Canterbury were Joint Presidents.

Established towards the end of WWII, with The Queen as  Patron, the CCJ was set up to combat anti-Semitism and build understanding between the Christian Churches and the UK Jewish Community. At a time when elements within the churches were adopting increasingly strident anti-Israel positions, sometimes bordering on more traditional anti-Semitism Jonathan felt it important to re energise Jewish participation in CCJ which had fallen into some disrepair.

I had a lot on my plate at the time. I could well have done do without another commitment.  But for Susie, I would have said no. But as usual she was right. CCJ took me into places and to experiences that I could never have envisaged. Above all it deepened my relationship with Jonathan, providing many more occasions for interaction.

Rather like The Queen, Jonathan as Chief Rabbi  was in the habit of inviting people from all backgrounds and faiths to sit around his dinner table. Susie and I were invited twice maybe more.

The routine was always the same,

Guests assembled in the main Living Room, a somewhat austere and plainly furnished room with little colour or personality.

That came from the guests, who were left to mingle  and introduce themselves  until Jonatan and Elaine appeared and escorted us into the Dining Room.

The week of one such occasion I had been struck by the sermon given at his installation by the new Archbishop of York John Sentamu. Originally from Uganda, and most recently  the hugely successful Bishop of Birmingham, were he was widely known as “Our Bishop” , the appointment of a black bishop to the Arch Dioces of York was seen as nothing if brave. The sermon that took my attention transcribed the text of the Shema, Hear O Israel, the ultimate statement of Jewish belief, into Hear o England on which Sentamu based his credo.

So much so that I had printed it from The Times and tucked it into my inside pocket ready, if the opportunity arose, to ask Jonathan what he thought about it. Lo and behold, ushered into the Living Room who do I find leaning on the fireplace but said John Sentamu with his distinctive hand  painted wooden cross, who was quite astonished when I produced his sermon from my inside pocket.

The last time I saw JS was after he had ceased to be Chief Rabbi, at his home in NW11. My eldest grandson Cobi, a pupil at UCS, had been telling me how among his school pals those who were Jewish generally retained a connection with their religion even though they were not in any way “religious”, whereas most if those who were not Jewish did not. We wondered together why this was.

We were also talking of Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” which had only recently been published and which left little if any room for any religion.

How to reconcile the two?

“Let’s  ask the Rabbi”, Cobi suggested.

So it was that a little later Jonathan had generously  invited us to call by after school. Of course he knew, and clearly did not have too much regard for, Harari.

Gently Jonathan questioned Cobi, and quoting from books seemingly picked at random from the bookcases which ran the length of his sizable sitting room, set up his stall for Judaism and why it endured.

News of Jonathan’s death came in on Saturday evening. It was a terrible shock. Only days before I had texted him and had received the following reply:

Dear Jonathan, I just learned that you are unwell with a cancer. It seems to come to so many of us. This is to let you know that I am rooting for you and wish you refuah schlema. I am working again with Langdon – in the background this time, and often think of the good times we shared and how important your support and enthusiasm were to me and to all of us at Langdon. Especially during the early days when we were feeling our way.

Warmest good wishes, also to Elaine,

Simon

Thanks Simon. I’ll pass your lovely message to Rabbi Sacks and Elaine. I know how much they will appreciate hearing from you. Best wishes Joanna Benarroch”

On waking up the morning aqfter his death I played again this tribute to Leaornard Cohen which Jonathan recorded in 2016 on his phone from New York:.

It is 14 minutes, but please take the time to listen. And then maybe play clips from the two Leonard Cohen songs Jonathan speaks about, Hallelujah and You Want It Darker.

I wept, tears streaming down my cheeks. It is not an obituary for Cohen. It’s Jonathan’s own obituary, saying in his own words more about this remarkable man than anything you will read or hear.

So much the richer for the life of Jonathan Sacks, I am infinitely the poorer for his passing.

smo/ 9.11.2020

Blog 92 -The Rule of Law

Posted September 12, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I think we have an emergency here in the UK

In Boris Johnson we have a Prime Ministrer who is prepared to trash centuries of the values which have defined Britian.

Philip Stephens in his column in today’s Financial Times says it better than I can:

“The UK prime minister, Philip says, is not impressed by a history of physical and economic security “rooted in global engagement”, of attachment to liberal democracy or courts admired for “unshakeable independence and incorruptibility”. What matters is getting his way. But who will now trust the UK, with its commitment to the rule of law thrown to the winds and its national character in tatters?”

When I was peripherally involved in efforts to create a centre party to take on Corbyn I came to know Johnny Mercer, the then recently elected Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View. I had read and admired his book “We Were Warriors”, a moving description of his time as a British soldier in Afghanistan. and was struck that he had made his political home in the Conservative party. Elected in 2015 he quickly made his mark, first as junior minister in Mrs May’s Government and is now an Under Secretary of State in Mr. Johnson’s.

I had not been in touch with with him for some time.

Yesterday I felt compelled to write to him in the following terms:

Dear Johnny,

The Rule of Law.
It’s been a long time. But you may not be all that surprised to hear from me now.
Dominic Cummings broke the law seemingly without consequences to him. Now Boris Johnson thinks to do the same.
Actually  the impact of Cummings was and is great. I cannot tell you how often I hear it referred to among people who do not wish to follow Covid related regulations or so called Government guidance.
The consequences of the Internal Markets Bill, if enacted,  are likely to massive. You do not need me to tell you what they are likely to be.
It is almost unimaginable  that we see a British Conservative Government, one that already routinely demonstrates world class incompetence, now behaving with the insouciance of a Putin or Erdogan.
I met you because I had read your book and admired the values of which you wrote so compellingly and for which you fought – in your constituency as well as in the Army.
It is beyond my understanding how that same Capt. Mercer can remain in a government which is led  by a Prime Minister who has so little regard for the rule of law and generally for the traditional values surrounding public life which until his arrival we used to take for granted.
Kind personal regards,
Simon

There has not been time for a reply. Never the less I am posting this letter because, whilst I believe that the situation is dire and urgent, there is still an opportunity to stop the Bill.

We pride ourselves in living in a Parliamentary democracy. Yet we have government with an eighty seat majority within a fixed five year parliament. We have a Government which is led by a Prime Minister and an unelected Special Advisor who evidently care little either for the rule of law or the conventions which have long governed the conduct of public life. In these circumstances it is arguable that what we now have is a parliamentary dictatorship where the only effective opposition lies within the Tory Party itself.

Many, perhaps most, Conservative MP’s believe themselves to be men and women of principle.

The Internal Markets Bill is due its Second Reading in Parliament on Tuesday.

I am writing this blog today to urge all my readers who care for the standing and reputation of this country to contact every Tory Member of Parliament whom they can reach to protest this abomination of a Bill and demand in the name of everything that this country holds dear that they vote against it.

smo 12.09.2020

Blog 91: Fear and Competence

Posted August 18, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

For those of my readers who like to keep track of where I am, I am writing this from our home in London.

Susie and I returned some three weeks ago. Getting back from Israel was not that straightforward. Given the presence in Israel of the Coronavirus (Corona as they call it there) and our age profile, Susie was understandably anxious about flying. We did not fancy Whizz Air or Easy Jet, the only airlines flying direct between Tel Aviv and London. We had Business Class return tickets with British, but BA kept postponing their resumption of flights. We wanted to fly Business so as to minimise contact with other passengers.  Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul, to the rescue.

I had once flown Turkish to London when I was living in Israel and visiting Istanbul.  I remembered being impressed. I did my Corona research. What I read was encouraging. The actual experience was even better. Ben Gurion was almost deserted, well organised, rather like having a private airport. Ataturk Airport in Istanbul where we had to change planes was clean like a vast operating theatre, social distancing at every stage, staff all in masks and protective gear, clear signage everywhere. Similarly boarding and in flight.

All was exemplary until we landed at Heathrow – which, without going into the wretched details, I can only describe as a shambles. Even though, by keeping our own distance, wearing masks, and refusing to enter the snake of arriving passengers at Passport Control, I was fairly sure that we had kept ourselveves safe.

Heathrow Terminal 2 Arrivals July 29th 2020

Our journey having started in Israel, before leaving we duly completed the necessary online forms to be checked on arrival into the UK. On arrival we were required to self-isolate for 14 days. Except that the forms were not checked on arrival and the whole time we were subject to self-isolation no one checked, not even by phone, to see if were where we were supposed to be. So unlike our experience in Israel (see Blog 86)

Which started me thinking about fear and competence.

Among our contemporaries the fear of Corona is palpable and very real. The danger is real. But nothing like the fear. What strikes me is how poorly the two are correlated.

I wrote in Blog 86 of how on March 17th we quit London for our rather remote house in N Israel. It was literally an overnight decision, made because we had little confidence in the UK government’s handing of the pandemic or what would happen to us were we to get infected.  Whereas in Israel, not only could we seclude ourselves in our village but in every way the Israel authorities seemed to have the situation well in hand. Both assessments were born out. Events confirmed that we had made the right decision. In Israel we felt safe and confident. Here in the UK we had every reason to be fearful. The number of deaths in Israel was negligible, mainly among the very elderly or the ultra-orthodox who ignored the rules; a total of under 250 in a population of nine million and where we knew of no one who even became infected. This compared with over forty thousand here in the UK, infections all around us and alas deaths too among our friends and community.

To put it another way, in both places the fear and the danger were correlated.

Returning to London I find the reverse.

By the time we left on 29TH July to everyone’s surprise, Israel had lost the Corona plot. In just a few weeks deaths more than doubled, infections were running out of control and no one seemed to be in charge.

How come one asks? The answer, as previously with the UK , is of course politics. Until  April 20th Israel had no Government. Following the indecisive March 3rd elections Prime Minister Netanyahu headed an interim administration. Effectively this was a one-man band, allowing Natanyahu to direct the Corona response virtually single handed, using excellent governement officials, “unimpeded” by ministers or the Knesset (parliament) which was not sitting. Indeed, the only time things went wrong was when, under pressure from Netanyahu’s  Religious Party political allies, flights from New York bringing in virus infected yeshiva students were permitted to continue for a time whilst all other flights had been stopped.

By the time the virus was controlled, and the lockdown eased, Israel had a new Government; a monstrous bloated coalition government of some 34 ministers straddling the political spectrum who whilst defending their newly acquired turf  could agree on nothing. Worse, it was a government which a number of key officials declined to serve. The Corona took full advantage. Government responses, when eventually they came, were confusing, frequently irrational and/or contradictory, often ineffectual. Unlike our own experience when we arrived in March, people required to quarantine were reporting no checks. The sense of quiet competence which had so impressed us in March was lost. In the space of three weeks Corona was everywhere, per capita new infections suddenly among the highest in the world. Albeit they are now coming down and mainly confined to  particular communities.

It was a relief to be back in London. Where Corona wise everything seems to be upside down. The pessimistic predictions that, following the easing of lock down, the virus would run rife have not been borne out. The media gleefully carried front page pictures of crowded beaches; yet new infections remain stubbornly low, concentrated in a few northern communities, where local lockdowns were quickly imposed and seem to have been effective. Hospital wards are reported to be almost empty. Yet the fear persists, paradoxically more so than in Israel, where statistically the danger is certainly greater.

Why is this, I have been wondering?

Leading me to reflect on the connection between fear and actual danger, the extent to which they are or are not correlated and why.

I think it has something to do with competence.

Over the years that I have been writing these blogs I have often remarked on how “can do” strikes me as the default position of most Israelis. Not always comfortable to be with, nevertheless I have found Israelis a practical people, resilient and used to meeting challenges which to others might be overwhelming. “Capable “ and “competent” are the words which come to mind.

Regular readers will know my views on the competence of Boris Johnson’s Government –incidentaly now seemingly a generally held view, amplified by its almost unbelievably incompetent handling of this year’s “non A Level” exam results.

Over the centuries the Btitish have shown themsleves also to be extraodinaruly capable and competent. Today we may be more diverse than the relatively few island people who ruled a third of the Globe and gave birth to such successful countries as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Yet when competently led, pace the 2012 London Olympics, it is still true that there’s little the British cannot turn their hand to.

It’s the “competently led” that’s missing. Its not just the initial arrogant insouciance and bungling which characterised Johnson’s early mishandling of the Corona situation. It’s the government by slogan; the increasingly fatuous daily pandemic news conferences which told us nothing about the “the science”, itself elevated to almost divine status; its that when all other well led countries had closed their borders Johnson left left ours open for weeks until the danger had passed and then, just as holidays abroad resumed, its sudden knee jerk imposition of hastily announced quarantines, quarantines which since unenforced seem destined to cause maximum anxiety and inconvenience for minimum benefit; it’s that when face masks (shown to slow the spread of infection and to reduce the risk of serious illness to the wearer) have been de rigeur abroad, here the story has been mixed messaging and half-hearted guidance followed belatedly by hard to understand, ever changing and once again unenforced legal obligations; it’s the shambles at Heathrow that I described. I could go on.

All of which I believe goes some way at least to account for the paradox that whilst currently there is little Corona here in the UK people remain so fearful, whereas in Israel, where cases have risen and are not yet under control, the fear seems so much less. I suspect that it comes down to confidence. Despite the recent political infighting, Israelis still believe that when push comes to shove effective leadership and competent government are available – of which the unexpected announcement of UAE ties is timely evidence.

Here in the UK, with Boris Johnson’s government with its 80 seat majority and over four years of a fixed term parliament still to go looking impregnable,  there can be little such belief.

No wonder the fear.

smo. 18.08.2020

Blog 90 – The Best and The Worst

Posted June 29, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

As I had anticipated, Susie and I are still at our home overlooking the Sea of Galilee from where I am writing this. It’s beautiful, rather warm now, remote, safe and socially distant from everywhere. However, the virus is back, with loosening up is  going into reverse, and frankly it’s beginning to do my head in. Maybe writing this will help

An exception to the endless expanse of nothing was something that happened last Friday. Instructed to tell no one, we were invited at midday to the attractive yet modest home in the Jerusalem hills of the sister in law of my wife’s nephew Richard. Richard, aged 53 and on day release from hospital, thought that he was coming to a small family party for his niece’s birthday. Unbeknown to him, he was coming to a highly unusual ceremony in which he was to be promoted to the rank of Major in the Reserves of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in which has continued to serve since first joining the IDF as a paratrooper immediately after he left school in England.

A month or so ago we were all shocked when Richard, always larger than life, with time for everyone, father of four, mainstay of his family, was admitted to hospital in the night where following a  battery of urgent tests he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive blood cancer. The treatment has been amazing, unlikely to be bettered anywhere. Even more amazing has been Richard astonishing positivity, unwilling to concede even for a moment that he won’t beat it. Which, incidentally, whatever the odds, I truly believe he will.

Israel’s citizen army is unlike any other in so many ways. Operating in plain sight of everyone in this tiny country, one peculiarity is the effectiveness of the security blanket which envelops so much of what goes on. So, whilst we, Richard’s family, knew that Richard had stayed on in the reserves, doing occasional reserves duty (miluim), that was all. Richard never once referred to it. One never asked. It was never mentioned. We had no inkling of what he did. All completely normal.

Hence, we had absolutely no idea what to expect.

First it was indeed an informal family party, kids, parents, in laws, cousins, aunts and uncles, close friends in profusion. Drinks and light buffet food laid out on the open plan kitchen counter. Standing at one end chatting informally three of the guests were in uniform. Israel army uniform is anything but formal, open necked standard issue green shirts, officers virtually undistinguishable save for the rank marking on their canvas epaulettes, so nothing in that to disturb the informality.

Then Richard arrived. Newly bald due to his intensive chemotherapy, perhaps a little paler than usual but, extraordinarily in the circumstances, still radiating energy.

Apart from Richard’s words, given in English for the benefit of his parents and other family members whose Hebrew was not up to it, and a most moving address by Richard’s 88 year old father Henry, of course the proceedings were in Hebrew. Only later did we understand their significance. First on, film star looks, two pips on his shoulder, the lieutenant colonel commander of Richard’s unit which he, the lieutenant colonel had put together, handpicking his people. Not just any lieutenant colonel it seems; a former Navy Seal commander, History PhD, journalist and writer, recently elected Blue and White MK (MP) and at the age of 45 Minister of Communications in the newly former coalition government. Followed by the Colonel commanding the entire section in which Richard’s unit functions. He explained that whilst promotion as a reserve officer is unusual, the importance of what Richard did and the personal qualities which he brought to the job made it inevitable. Normally it would have happened later in the year. However, in view of the circumstances he had brought it forward to a day when Richard was out of hospital. True to the informality of the citizen nature of Israel’s defence forces, at the invitation of the colonel Richard’s two boys got to attach his new epaulets to the well pressed army shirt which, thanks to Richard’s ever supportive wife, miraculously appeared.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is blog-90-photo.jpg

Why am I am writing this you may be wondering?

Those who know me best will have heard me remark of my time in Israel that I find it a country of extremes, the best and the worst – with not so much in between. As compared with most other places which, often more comfortably, are mainly somewhere in between.

What I just wrote about Richard strikes me as a vivid illustration of so much of what is best here; the widespread culture of national service, the recognition of personal qualities, the professional and academic excellence of those involved, the availability of world class medical services,  the fusion of politics, army service and civilian life, the modesty and informality, above all perhaps the determination, courage and self-belief.

A welcome antidote to the worst which, if you let it,  can make life here such hard work.

Although in my experience the best far outweighs the worst, at least on a good day, it is the very existence of so much that is the best which make the countless examples of the worst that one encounters daily life all the more baffling and disappointing. How can a people capable of so much excellence build a powerhouse economy with Greater Tel Aviv at its epicentre, elegant tower blocks of flats and offices arising out of seeming nowhere almost as fast as in China, without building an extensive metro system at the same time? How can it be that put those same people in a motor car, of which it feels like there is at least one for every person, they drive like maniacs, not with the elan and joie de vivre of Italians, but with an impatience, rudeness and aggression which alas seems wholly Israeli. How can the banking system remain so sclerotic? And I have not even mentioned the malign impact on the entire nation of a corrupt political system permanently in thrall to religious parties controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox, the men in black coats and black hats who care only for themselves. Nor the politics of Annexation – of which maybe a few words later.

Israel. The best. The worst. Not so much in between. But certainly not dull.

It makes a change from the extraordinary mediocrity and widespread incompetence back in the UK which I see reflected every morning when I glance at The Times online. No less baffling than the extremes of Israel, is how  a small island nation which with a tiny government and a small population  ruled half the globe, gave the world parliamentary democracy, the common law and the English language, which in my lifetime in Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, produced two of the most formidable leaders of their times, which  as recently as 2012 staged arguably one of the best Olympic Games in modern times, can have self-harmed to such  an extraordinary extent so rapidly. Alone in the world, out of the EU most likely without a deal, no other deals in sight, coping with the aftermath of among the worst Covid 19 results in the world  with a ruined economy, a depreciated and depreciating currency and a costly but increasingly  irrelevant military Boris Johnson’s Britain presents a sorry picture. Perhaps worst of all, it is having to do this with an over centralised system of governance which is clearly  no longer anything like fit for purpose (Cummings is right about that), and a bunch of Government ministers whose particular blend of mendacity, arrogance, mediocrity and incompetence is all too often jaw dropping. In the whole Cabinet I think there are scarcely two that I would employ! It’s not all bad though, whilst it’s still early days, the emergence in Sir Keir Starmer of a seemingly decent, level headed, principled and thoughtful Leader of the Labour Party is encouraging.

One of the unexpected benefits of getting older is the increased perspective which comes with age. I have read and continue to read a lot of history, some of which I am now old enough to have experienced first-hand. One thing I have learned is that things are seldom as they seem at the time: often neither as good nor as bad. As my father used to say to me, by definition, the unexpected always happens.

So, whilst Britain looks to be in the doldrums its been there before. I still believe that there is something very special about Britain and its people. Somehow, Britain will get through this. Meanwhile it remains that “green and pleasant land” that it is so comfortable to be in. Perhaps it’s the very absence of extremes.

Back to Israel where extremes seem to be the norm. Earlier I mentioned Annexation, a project originally of the extreme Right. Taking its cue from President Trump’s supposed Peace Plan, and looking to do so whilst Trump is still President, Israel’s recently installed coalition government intends to declare Israel sovereignty over parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria to the settlers, what you call it is a huge political statement here) where most settlers live. Much remains unclear, including its extent, the number of Palestinian Arab citizens who will live there and whether they will enjoy full rights, including most importantly the right to vote. Gantz says yes, Bibi no. Any which way, to liberals like me and indeed to most Europeans it’s an outrage, unlawful, certain to be counterproductive, a politically driven act of incalculable self-harm, And yet. Looking below the surface it’s not entirely clear quite what is afoot. So far the Arab response, indeed even the response of the Palestinians themselves, has been more muted than might have been expected. My readers know my views on Netanyahu. Yet for all that he is vile, time and time again Bibi Netanyahu has shown himself to be no fool. Nor necessarily is Benny Gantz the complete fool he is portrayed to be by those, like me, angry that he succumbed to Netanyahu’s blandishments. Half the settler movement is bitterly opposed. Why? Because if Israel sovereignty is applied to part what happens to the remainder? The inescapable logic is some form of Palestinian state. And then what? Change the status quo in one part, everything else changes. Is this when Bibi finally loses it? Or is it yet another outrageous but finely judged political master stroke? Watch this space.

Two countries:

On the one hand Israel, stimulating, energetic, the local economic technology and military powerhouse with its depressingly awful politics, about to risk all with an act of inestimable self-harm.

And on the other hand Britain, incompetently governed, about to face the reality of Brexit, its own particular brand of self-harm, stuck on the  “red list” of countries with a high rate of new  Covid 19 infections, bumbling its way towards Boris Johnson’s ever receding new dawn.

These past months sheltering from Covid 19 in Almagor where our house is have been amazing; surrounded by lovely people, enjoying the tail end of an unusually wet winter giving way to a beautiful spring, this has been an experience for which shall be ever grateful.  I shall soon return. But now, as daily temperatures climb to 40C and flights are restored I think that I will soon be ready to take my chances back in a Britain which, though incompetently led and of uncertain future, is still very much home.

smo / almagor,Israel, 29.06.2020

Blog 89 – Israel in the time of Corona

Posted May 5, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

It is coming up for two months since Susie and I arrived at our home in N Israel on a dark, wet and windy night on March 17th.  As for everyone everywhere, it has been a strange time.  But now spring is in the air.  Not only the season but also a growing feeling that somehow Israel has managed the corona pandemic rather well.  At least for now.  By the way, I call it Corona rather than Covid19 because that’s how they refer to the infection. 

We get most of our news here from the English language online Times of Israel website.  It is constantly updated and surprisingly comprehensive.   How do I know this?  Because when I talk to our neighbours most of what they tell me I have also learned from ToI (www.timesofisrael.com for anyone interested.  It’s free but rather like the Guardian in England, with a request for voluntary contributions to defray the cost). 

As my regular readers will know I am no great fan of Bibi Netanyahu.  However, this article which I am reproducing illustrates something about this extraordinary country that I have been increasingly conscious of over the years.  And which is completely borne out by the way Israel has tackled the Coronavirus. This is a country that gets things done.

Netanyahu celebrates a victory over COVID-19; it marks his political triumph too

Announcing Israel’s gradual reopening, PM points to stats showing how effectively he’s led the battle against the virus. It’s a battle that has also boosted his leadership standing

David Horovitz

By DAVID HOROVITZ 4 May 2020, 11:34 pm  

Standing in front of a graph showing the decline in new cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the easing or many lockdown restrictions, at a press conference in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020 (GPO)

Less than eight weeks after he warned that the coronavirus pandemic could kill tens of thousands of Israelis, and intimated that tens of millions might die worldwide, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the nation on Monday night that Israel has brought the virus under control, at least for now, with its death toll at a strikingly low 235.

“Every death is a great loss… it’s heartrending,” he said. But overall, he declared, Israel’s battle against COVID-19 has been “a great success story.”

Throughout the past eight weeks, Netanyahu has frequently held evening broadcasts: to tell the citizens of the latest restrictions being imposed on their lives in the first weeks of the crisis, and, more recently, to tell them of limitations being gradually eased. On Monday night, during an unprecedentedly lengthy appearance summed up by TV commentators as a kind of “victory over coronavirus” event, Netanyahu announced that the State of Israel was now gradually reopening — for business, and for something akin to normal life.

Taking questions, sharing the forum with ministers and experts, a strikingly upbeat Netanyahu announced that citizens are now free to travel as far as they like from their homes; families can visit their elderly relatives; gatherings of up to 100 will be permitted by the end of the month, and unlimited gatherings by mid-June; the whole school system will be open by the end of the month; sports and leisure will be unlimited by mid-June; and Israel is looking for ways to work toward a resumption of international flights without risking new waves of infection from countries that have handled the pandemic less effectively. “We want to reconnect to the world,” he said, but without importing a new wave of contagion.

Every effort would now be made to get the economy back on track, he said, and to get compensation more effectively distributed to battered companies, freelancers and small business owners than has been the case to date. “We’ve made mistakes too,” he allowed. “Not everything is perfect.”

With all due respect to the cliche about lies, damned lies and statistics, Netanyahu was able to showcase stats that emphatically endorsed his claim that a combination of three factors — the early preventative steps he introduced (closing the borders, ordering folks to say home, and instituting digital tracking of carriers), the performance of the healthcare system, and Israelis’ general compliance with the restrictions — had placed Israel near the top of the developed world in facing COVID-19.

Israel is down to a few dozen new cases of infection per day from a high of over 700, he noted; it has fewer than 100 serious cases; there are far more recoveries than new cases daily.

That toll of fewer than 250 dead, he pointed out, compares to 29,000 dead in Italy; over 28,000 in the UK; 25,000 in Spain and France. In what he called approximately Israel-sized New York, the toll was at 18,000. In Sweden and Belgium, countries with population numbers not dissimilar to Israel, the tolls were at almost 3,000 and almost 8,000, respectively.

Israel’s success, he stressed, was not a function of climate, or of the relative young age of its populace, or of its geographic location. “If we hadn’t taken the steps we did, that’s what we would have gotten,” he said in answer to a question on whether he’d exaggerated the danger, and pointing to a graph showing the worst-affected nations. “We weren’t scaring people; we’ve been saving people… Israel’s achievements are a model for many other countries.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement on May 4, 2020. (Screenshot)

Netanyahu offered an interesting insight into why he reacted so speedily to the advent of the pandemic and advised other world leaders — notably Austria’s Sebastian Kurz — to treat it with the utmost seriousness. When he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, he recalled, the first lesson in a statistics course he took focused on the exponential spread of viruses. That class “is etched in my memory,” he said. When he first heard about COVID-19, “I remembered the course” — a course, he said, that had now saved a great many lives.

But he also stressed that much about the virus was still unknown; that it might yet come back, stronger and deadlier; and that Israel would have to batten down again if infection rates start to soar, or if the number of serious cases rises above 250. “Nobody knows what will happen next,” he said — not his fellow world leaders, and not the world experts with whom he also consults. As with a pilot checking the vital gauges, he said, “if a red light comes on, we’ll have to change the policy.”

***********************************

Many years ago, and I think I may have written about this in one of my early blogs, when I was living here in Almagor, I noticed how people in Israel could do things.  They were practical and used to doing things with their hands.  The default studies of the younger generation seem to be increasingly computer science, technology, engineering, life sciences.  So unlike the law, financial services, accountancy, property and the creative arts which seem to be predominant in the UK.  I have noticed how quickly infrastructure projects happen here.  Particularly I watched Israel construct a four lane underpass in Herzliya just north of Tel Aviv in under half the time it took to construct something almost the same for where the A1 crossed the North Circular just north of our home in Highgate.  Since when our “remote” outpost here in the north of Israel has been connected by a state of the art motorway, tunnelling under anything in its way, reducing the journey time from North Tel Aviv from 2 ½/ 3 hours  to a little over 1 ½  hours.  With a completely new railway connecting nearby Carmiel also constructed in the same time.  Israelis often come across as brusque, lacking the social niceties that, rightly I believe, we prize in Britain. But, my goodness, they do really get things get done. 

The Corona crisis has particularly focussed attention on healthcare.  Everything about the UK seems to have been about protecting the NHS.  I thought the NHS was there for the nation.  But it seems to have been the other way round. During our time here I have had the experience of the local health service.  Fortunately, not Corona connected, just routine health maintenance type things.  Our moshav community has its own clinic, visited twice a week by a doctor and staffed three or four times a week by a qualified nurse – happily for me with perfect English.  The local Doctor Sunhil, by the way, is Arab Israeli.  His English isn’t great and he doesn’t have much bedside manner but he enjoys an excellent local reputation and he seems efficient.

I had managed to do in my back a bit and needed a scan.  Routine was for me also to have a blood test.  In this time of Corona I expected delays and difficulties.  What amazed me was an immediate reference to the local health fund clinic in Tiberias where I encountered a large purpose built building, fully set up for Corona, all staff in PPE, temperatures taken at the entrance, social distancing throughout.  Straight in for the scan and then immediately up to an orthopaedic specialist to discuss. Then the blood test.  Here we are “in the sticks”.  Blood tests are administered every Monday in the little clinic here.  I am rather proud to have learned to use the website of the health fund to which I belong.  I was told to expect my results by Tuesday afternoon,. Once I had logged in all I needed to do was put in my identity card number and a code sent to my phone.  There (in English!) there they were!.  Why can’t the NHS work like this in England  I couldn’t help but wonder? It just seems to me another instance of getting things done.  People complain about the Israel health service.  To me, it is miraculous.  Joined up, a huge amount of user friendly information and interaction available through the website – in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English.  It’s insurance based, everyone pays a monthly subscription, reduced to nominal on reaching retirement, and there are small payments for some tests and hospital visits. Otherwise the balance comes from taxation.   It is said that standards in the periphery, where we are, are worse than in the metropolitan centres.  This may well be true. Yet compared to trying to get things organised through our local GP practice in Highgate, it feels like a miracle.

As I’ve already said, I’m no great fan of Bibi Netanyahu.  But the thing stood out from the report that I have included was his reference to his statistics class at MIT.  He may be a brilliant and unscrupulous politician. But he also has an MIT education. It seems that the German government has also done Corona well.  Is it a coincidence that Angela Merkel is a chemist by training?

The British people have come across as being amazing, seemingly surprising even the British Government  by their mainly cheerful adherence to lockdown and social distancing, their minimal use of the NHS for non-Corona needs, the supportive togetherness of local communities, their stoical acceptance of death.

Less amazing has been their government.

It seems there are no scientist or engineers among the British Cabinet. When dealing with something like Corona, in a sense they are all amateurs, leaving it to “the science” which like everything else can be no more than a series of different opinions.  Add in doubts around the membership of SAGE, seemingly missing  a number of important skill sets and it is beginning to seem no coincidence that the UK government was late in the game, failed to appreciate the possibilities that island Britain offered for isolating the entire nation (even now there are no checks on incoming flights), declined collaboration with Europe for political reasons (since unconvincingly since denied) , obsesses endlessly how  “safely” to use tracking  technology to trace infections when other far more successful nations have simply just got on with it, and at pretty much every stage has seemed to fumble the ball.  With nine times the population of Israel, with the example of Italy before it, Britain has some  29,000 acknowledged corona deaths to Israel’s 235. Surely there’s something seriously gone wrong here.

However good things are here in Israel Corona wise, no matter how beautiful the Galilee spring or how welcoming, kind and supportive are our friends and neighbours here, every day I look forward to returning to our home , to our life, family, and friends in and around  London. Sadly, thanks to what from here looks like endemic British government lassitude and indecisiveness (The Treasury excepted), the time when this is going to be possible and sensible looks ever further away.

smo, moshav almagor, israel / 5.05. 2020

Blog 88 – Earth’s Corona Cure

Posted April 17, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

My eldest daughter Sasha is the creatively talented member of our family. Possibly as a result, the father daughter relationship which we have is complex – loving for sure, but sometimes despite our best intentions difficult, occasionally even tempestuous. Life is never dull. For which I am ever grateful.

The current Coronavirus pandemic has accentuated the various feeling which we have, about the general situation, about the generations, even about each other. Any of my readers who read to the end will have a sense of some of this from Sasha’s poem which I included in my previous Blog 86 Brave New World 2020.

Last night she posted the following on her Facebook page. I don’t really do FaceBook myself, but I do get an email alert whenever Sasha does a post, normally a photo of where she is or something she is doing, often with our grandchildren.

Last night’s was something different. I was so struck by it that I immediately wanted to share it. So with Sasha’s agreement, I am republishing it, with the introduction which Sasha wore on her Facebook page but otherwise without comment It speaks for itself. And for me.

smo 17.04.2020

Blog 87 – Jonathan

Posted April 11, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

I just lost one of my oldest and best friends to the Virus. Among the last people I could have imagined getting sick, Jonathan was strong, fit and full of life.

We met when I was seventeen, shortly after I arrived at university in Newcastle on Tyne. Jonathan was second year, a civil engineer, already living in a flat in Jesmond. I was living in the relative safety of a hall of residence, probably far too young to be there at all. Civil engineering, living in a flat, it all seemed very exotic.

We were from very different backgrounds; Jonathan from a well-established farming and publishing family in the south, me from a small business Jewish family in the north, but somehow we became good friends. Harrogate, where I lived, was in weekend distance from Newcastle and on the road to the South. My folk kept open house, always good for a meal and a comfortable bed. My friends seemed to enjoy their company, which then was more interesting than mine and my Mum and Dad loved them to visit. Jonathan became a regular.

My final year at Newcastle, by then a university in its own right, having split from the University of Durham of which as King’s College Newcastle it had been a part, saw the opening of a fabulous new student Union, resplendent with a magnificent House of Commons style debating chamber. That year Jonathan was Convenor of Debates, a position of some importance, whilst I, having previously edited the university student newspaper, found myself elected Hon.  Secretary of the now magnificently rehoused Student Union. What fun we had!!!

After graduating I moved to London. Jonathan stayed in Newcastle to do his Ph.D, spending holidays at home in Surrey where his family occupied a rather splendid  working farm, the  ancient farm house I remember boasting somewhat astonishing  portico columns framing the front entrance. An hour or so from London, where I was living in a small flat, it was now my turn to become the ‘regular’.

I can’t recall now how it happened, but Susie, who by then had started to become something of a fixture in my life, reminded me that we met Jonathan’s fiancée Suzie the day after they became engaged. And so before too long came  their wedding day, the Catholic Church Marriage Ceremony conducted by Suzie’s local priest together with Jonathan’s brother Thos who was Chaplain to the Queen at Sandringham and me the Jewish Best Man – and probably the first-time my Susie, as she was rapidly becoming, had set foot inside a church!

Jonathan and Suzie were always ecumenical. A few years later I took part in another Catholic ceremony, the Baptism of their youngest daughter Lucy, promising as Godfather to ensure that Lucy would be brought up in the Catholic faith. I am not sure how well I did with that, but Lucy and I have remained close, made easier by the fact that she and my youngest daughter Genevieve and their husbands have become firm friends in their own right.

The Two Susies, Jonathan and I enjoyed parallel lives, sharing good times and bad, our children growing up, finding partners, and producing their own families. Our lives were the typical privileged, adequately prosperous, professionally satisfying, multicultural, sexually liberated and peaceable experience of we the educated baby boomer generation. The generation which had not known the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Great Depression, all of which had been the lot of our parents and grandparents. Surrounded by family and friends far and wide, we were the golden generation that had it all. Or so it seemed. Until Covid 19 came for us, the suddenly now “at risk” seventy year olds.

Jonathan’s life, like mine, was “privileged”, idyllic even, but  not untypical of country living – for years working  until the end as a consultant Civil Engineer, occupying a spacious early 1900’s house set in 12 acres of rolling Surrey country side, restoring vintage cars and with Suzie raising sheep, keeping chickens, growing their own vegetables, tending their extensive garden and woodlands, at this time of year alive with bluebells, all with very little help. Aware of the passing years, they had just downsized to a more “sensible” house on the edge of a nearby small town where shops and other facilities are within walking distance – when the Virus struck. Eleven days at home, getting more ill each day, by the time Jonathan arrived at hospital it was probably too late. The staff and the care were amazing – he was straight into ICU and on to a ventilator. But his body couldn’t cope. Jonathan, and his beautiful life, were no more.

I am so so sad. Frightened too. Also, ANGRY. Angry at our politicians, for ignoring warnings that someday a pandemic was inevitable.    Angry that politicians were more interested in Brexit or Left wing ideology than doing the simple things needed to keep us safe. Whilst I most sincerely wish Boris Johnson a full and as early as possible recovery, I do not share the apparently popular view that he has been doing well. He presents well, for sure. That indeed is his great skill, and one not to be undervalued in present times. But obsessed and for vital weeks distracted by Brexit, his cabinet a peon to mediocrity (Rishi Sunak, who got there by accident, and Michel Gove, banished to the fringes for perceived lack of loyalty, excepted), reliant on conflicting advice, late to get a grip, failing to learn from others and thus entirely failing to grasp the importance of acting early, it is the Prime Minister who must carry the responsibility for having allowed the Virus to spread as widely as it did. With prompt action, as in New Zealand, it could have been halted so much earlier. Responsibility not only for unnecessary deaths but for economic and social distress infinitely greater than might have been needed had action been taken earlier.

By the way, I am writing this from our retreat in Northern Israel. If you think I am angry about the UK, try me on the state of Israeli governance. An amazing country utterly betrayed by its venal political leadership.

Yet we are where we are. Having had my rant, I hear Jonathan’s quiet good humoured voice expressing optimism and urging us to look on the bright side. A one-time player for the Conservative party in local politics, no doubt he would have reminded me of the propensity for democracies eventually to do the right thing – having exhausted all other alternatives.Not with standing Matthew Parris’ rather pessimistic views in today’s Times I think that he would have seen  the possibility that Corvid 19 could prove to be the catalyst which saves human life on our planet, where having learnt to work from home we convert city centre office blocks into living and meeting  spaces, cutting back on commuting,  reducing travel to what suddenly become unnecessary meetings, at one stroke reducing pollution, greening our cities and enhancing the quality of life for everyone;  or the likelihood that we will come to value real engineering, be it computer, civil, electrical, mechanical, agricultural, medical or pharmaceutical, over financial engineering. That at last we are coming to understand that scientists are more valuable than bankers. That as well as clapping NHS staff and all those hitherto low paid and under recognized operatives who sustain our lives, we need to pay and reward them accordingly, higher taxes be damned.

Another reason to be optimistic has struck me. It concerns deaths from Covid and is therefore especially poignant. We are shocked and, some of us, angered by deaths in the hundreds and now thousands. Every death hurts, many dreadfully.  Yet just a  hundred years ago Spanish Flu killed in the hundreds of thousands and then millions, no medical intervention of any sort being available. Overwhelming as Covid I9 is, in the developed world (alas, the so called third world is another story) we now not only expect our hospitals to cope but find ways, hitherto unimagined, to create new ones not in years or even months but in days. Freed from the strangling effect of unnecessary regulation and government bureaucracy the energy, ingenuity and sheer determination of industry to find solutions is extraordinary: existing drug therapies are being repurposed, whisky plants are making ethanol and hand sanitisers, Formula 1 racing car firms are  designing and building ventilators, airline pilots are even driving delivery trucks. Viewed from the perspective of history our ability to deal with Corvid 19 is unlike anything that has come before.

Life after Covid will continue. The world will be different but for most, other of course than those directly affected – those who have lost loved ones or livelihoods, not necessarily worse. Jonathan would have been among the first to understand and embrace this new world and among the first of my friends whom I would have wanted to talk to.

It just doesn’t seem possible that he’s no longer here.

smo / Good Friday 10.04.2020

Blog 86 Brave New World 2020

Posted March 22, 2020 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am writing this from the moshav (communal village) Almagor in Northern Israel where we have our holiday/retirement home.

Making the decision in London last weekend to come here proved agonisingly difficult. We would be leaving behind home, family and friends and pretty much the entire structure of our lives for an uncertain future.

We arrived into an eerily empty Ben Gurion airport last Tuesday, travelling on what turned out to the last British Airways flight out for some time.

It is here that we will sit out the Coronavirus. Israel’s response to Coronavirus has been muscular, enforcing widespread quarantines and closures. Along with some 50,000 others, having arrived from abroad, we ourselves are now in 14 days legally enforced self-isolation.

We had expected some form of interrogation or at least documentation when we arrived. To our surprise and slight consternation there was nothing. No one told us told us to self-isolate nor anything about how it worked or what to do. All we knew was that it was required. Perhaps lulled by the lack of any formalities, we assumed that it would be ok to take a daily walk, provided we stayed at least the statutory two meters away from anyone we met. WRONG!. After the persistent grey skies, cold winds and often torrential rain which had greeted us, Friday offered a brief spell of sunshine. We had a lovely walk around the village enjoying the clear skies and warm sunshine on our faces, always taking care to distance ourselves from anyone we came across. To be greeted just minutes after our return by a phone call on our rarely used landline from the Police asking why we had been out breaking our isolation! Followed by a similar but more friendly call from Shishi, whom we knew as the excellent local caterer, in his capacity as the moshav security officer . Then a second police call to my local cellphone, this time in English and much less friendly, warning of a NIS 5000 (£1200) fine if we were seen out again. A bit scary. But also impressive in its way. Mess with Israeli security at one’s peril.

No problem. Almagor is well set up. There are several families here who had returned from abroad, also in isolation. The local mini market delivers groceries. Shishi offers home delivery of delicious ready-made meals. Our friends here have volunteered any help we might need.

Just a week ago I wrote this:

In the Twentieth Century in the name of racial purity Germany separated Jews and non aryans and exterminated Jews. In the name of the proletariat The Soviet Union and Communist China separated and then eliminated the bourgeoisie, landowners and rich peasants. In the name of so-called separate development South Africa separated citizens by race and banned (subjected to house arrest) those among the whites who objected.

Welcome to Twenty First Century Britain where in the name of the NHS it’s the over 70’s who are to be, indeed already are, separated.

In less than half a week, among our age group, social distancing has become the norm. No getting together in our homes, no visits to restaurants, cafes, bars or pubs, cinemas, theatres or cultural events. Synagogues and churches? Surely soon on the list if not already. Celebrations of family and lifetime events, weddings, bar mitzvah’s, big birthdays cancelled for everyone but perhaps bearing especially hard on grandparents. Separation from friends, neighbours and business or sporting colleagues on whom, perhaps without realising it, we have become dependent for our mental wellbeing. Especially painful, separation from our families, children and grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews for whom suddenly for our own protection” we have become untouchables. And when we die? Well attended funerals, memorial services and home visits to those left behind also going, if not already gone.

That’s after just a few days with but the gentlest nudge from Government.

It’s strange how quickly among our circle this has become the norm. Not yet everywhere of course

The media pictures the stoical British elderly still just getting on with life as normal” whilst the laughingly named Health Secretary”, comfortable in his forties, speaks of the time, coming but not quite yet here, when the over seventies will need to self-isolate for up to FOUR MONTHS”.

Picture our villages, town and cities without Old People. Or rather should I say without The Elderly? Sounds nicer and more PC. Because when self-isolation becomes the rule, enforced if necessary by police, service personnel and maybe even parking attendants (why not, there won’t be any of us parking our cars) we will all have become effectively banned persons, invisible and largely absent from daily life, such as it is.

I got a shock last night when one of our daughters phoned on the way to the cinema”. So quickly has separation become our norm.

That I had quite forgotten that the young, i.e. those under 70 who are not The Elderly, still went out.

The first inkling of the separation of The Elderly came with the suggestion that football matches should still go ahead but without the over 70’s.

There I stopped, overtaken by the unexpected speed of events and our sudden drama of whether to stay or leave and – if leave – leave immediately or not at all.

What a difference a week has made. Our world turned over. No longer is it solely the over 70’s who are in isolation but the whole country. No schools, pubs, bars cafes or restaurants, sports, cinemas, clubs or theatres and, food and pharmacies apart, increasingly no shops.

The end, or at the very least the interruption for some considerable time, of life as we have known it. A shut down more severe and far reaching than anything ever before experienced, WW1 and WW2 included. Truly, we are living through history.

Last night my daughter, Sasha phoned for a chat, which soon became a rant – at the world, not us! She was angrily articulate and completely coherent. Once I recovered from the shock of her words, I realised that she really had something important to say. I can’t begin to do justice to what she said but the gist went something like this:

  • for most people losing their livelihoods is worse, much worse, than having the illness
  • killing the economy will devastate the lives of working families far more than the illness, from which almost all would recover
  • the creative economy, in which she and so many of her friends work, and which is a particular strength of the UK, consists largely of the self-employed (the gig economy) whose people are most exposed to the effects of, and are the least able to recover from a prolonged, total shut down.

And here comes the hard part

  • Isolate the over 70’s and the vulnerable by any means possible. Put them all into lockdown and let other people continue living with social distance but without fear of infecting the most vulnerable. Admittedly, many of the elderly and ailing will get ill and are going to die no matter what we do, so looked at rationally, ruining the lives of children and grandchildren, and burdening successive generations with mountains of debt, all in a (possibly vain) attempt to prevent premature but otherwise inevitable deaths, makes little sense.

Shocking isn’t it. I can hear the outrage. But politics is to decide. And you know, as a member of the over 70’s, I think she has a point.

Coronavirus is a killer. Any which way we look at it, there are going to be casualties. Put most starkly, should these be members of society as a whole with their lives before them – or the mainly less well among the already elderly who have lived their lives during probably the best decades known to man?

Not quite the question that Boris Johnson thought he would have to answer when he set out to become prime Minster. But that’s his job.

Overnight, whilst I was thinking about this, Sasha articulated her angst and feelings of bafflement in this poem, which she agreed (despite worrying about getting lynched for it) to let me share here. What you can’t say with words… say with poetry.

So, I thought that I would have a stab at a different response to Coronavirus. One that I am far from sure would be possible in Britain or even one that that I would advocate. One that I only dare express, because I am among the over 70’s. And in these extraordinary times when there is so much uncertainty, for no other reason than to generate debate.

  • Introduce general social distancing only to the point of maintaining the economy.
  • Concentrate resources on isolating and protecting the over 70’s and the vulnerable, pregnant women first and foremost, from catching the illness.
  • As far as possible maintain normal hospital admissions for the under 70’s. Prioritise hospital treatment for the virus for those under 70’s who need it.
  • Admit to hospital for virus treatment only those over 70 who have no other life-threatening illnesses. Or at worst, not at all where there is no capacity. The mildly or moderately ill will recover. Provide home hospice care and relax the rules on assisted suicide for those who will not.
  • And finally, as a quid pro quo, suspend Inheritance Tax up to say £2million per person for those who succumb.

Would I do this? Probably not. But hopefully if it was me I wouldn’t be starting from here. Once the news emerged from China, there was plenty of evidence of what would happen once the the virus escaped. As Israel has done, I would like to believe that I would have acted much much more quickly. And of course I would not have been obsessed by Brexit. We’d still be in the EU.

To finish on a happier note. I am not among the doomsters. Strangely, I  believe much that is positive will emerge. Yes, life will be different. But then I believe that, deep down, and Donald Trump apart, most of us understood that if life on our planet was to survive, many things about how we lived would have to change. I also have almost unlimited belief in our young people and their ability to rise to the challenges of the world, which will be theirs when, finally, Corvid 19 is overcome. And Sasha, too, is greatly comforted by knowing that this total shutdown is incredibly good for the environment, which is being given the break it needs and a chance to revive; and that all this might, in the end, lead to less consumerism and a better society. So we feel helpless but still hopeful. All topics for my next blog!

Blog 85 – On Christmas Morning

Posted December 25, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

Harold Wilson famously remarked “A week is a long time in politics”.

Its less than two weeks since the General Election, which just four days previously had prompted me to write, in Blog 83, of the antisemitism which had infected  the Labour Party –  and of the fear that somehow Jeremy Corbyn might end up becoming Prime Minister.

In that blog I wrote:

In 1770 Edmund Burke understood that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

That’s Britain’s problem today. We have as our main opposition a Labour Party full of many otherwise no doubt decent people doing nothing whilst the evil of anti-Semitism rages unchecked.

Happily, that fear, so real at the time, now seems to have been misplaced. It could all have been so different. As we enjoy Christmas morning, the sun shining, the country at peace, I want to reflect on and express deep appreciation for those good men who did not do nothing.

First, those within the Jewish Community. Traditionally Jews in Britain have felt more comfortable “keeping our heads down”, not wishing to draw attention. It was therefore something of a shock in March of this year to see on the television news leaders from across the Jewish community demonstrating in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. “Enough is Enough!” and Daiyenu read the placards. This didn’t just happen. It took what at the time must have seemed a brave decision to go public in this way.

Labour MP John Mann asked what is going wrong in his party

Then the Jewish MP’s, those who quit Labour and those who stayed, who despite the abuse called out what they were experiencing. “It was Jeremy Corbyn who made me Jewish” said one of them.

Lastly Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis. It took real guts to speak out as he did.

Next those who supported us. Notably the press, led by The Times which gave the front page to the Chief Rabbi’s concerns. Also church other religious leaders who rallied round and Prince Charles at the reception for the Jewish Community which he gave at Buckingham Palace on December 5th. Above all the mass of British people who, whilst in most cases having little knowledge of or interest in Britain’s Jews, cited Corbyn’s ambiguity (at best) on anti-Semitism among the reasons why they could not vote for him to become Prime Minister.

And finally, Boris Johnson. For those non-Jewish or overseas readers of this blog I am including a link to his Chanukah message

Please take just a moment to download and view it. Its extraordinary. Whatever one’s views about the personal qualities of our newly re-elected Prime Minister, here is a man, heeding Burke, making a stand against the evil of anti-Semitism which could not  be more  powerful and unequivocal.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo !!

smo 25.12 .2019

Blog 84 – Great Britain!

Posted December 17, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

In the light of last week’s extraordinary Election result I feel compelled to write a follow up.

Niall Ferguson wrote in this week’s Sunday Times of his pre-election sleep deprived state of anxiety, of his nightmare of another hung parliament that would end up producing an unholy Labour – Scottish Nationalist- LibDem coalition with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister.

I was far from alone in worrying; initial disbelief when the exit poll was announced at 10.00 pm giving way to a palpable sense of utter relief as the scale and nature of Boris Johnson’s victory became real. A sense of relief that is evident almost everywhere, except of course among the Corbynistas who remain in denial.

As my readers now know I hail from the North. I know the northern constituencies that went Blue. As a boy I travelled them with my Dad who had small businesses in South Shields, Newcastle and Bishop Auckland, Co Durham. And I knew them as a student.

I think that there’s something very wonderful in the fact that Britain has been saved from Corbyn and his hard left, not by the smart, more highly educated and well-to-do metropolitan elite but by the very down to earth less well-off  northerners to whom Labour promised the earth; canny, decent, sceptical no nonsense northerners who don’t  believe there are any free lunches and didn’t much care for Corbyn’s evident lack of patriotism and national pride, or maybe even for his antisemitism

Halelujah!

I feel humbled by what has happened; even a little ashamed that I feared that the British people were going to fall for Corbyn’s free everything, for the “popular policies” that still he says “won the argument”.

Truly this is an astonishingly wonderful country.

Many among my mainly Remain friends, whilst relieved by the defeat of Corbyn, are distressed that now we really are leaving the EU.  Until this election they, like me, had hoped that this might be avoided. I share this disappointment.

However, watching Johnson’s victory unfold I have come to understand that Brexit was never really about Europe, or even probably immigration either. It was a feeling that large segments of metropolitan Britain had become detached from its hinterland.  However improbably, by committing to “getting Brexit done” Johnson appears to have succeeded in reconnecting the hinterland to the centre, along the way reinventing a much needed one nation New Conservativism. In so doing he’s killed Labour as it had become and also, hopefully, the unattractive Rees Mogg brand of Toryism, although on this the jury is still out.

After years of drift and disappointment I sense a new confidence – not unlike after Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide in 1997.  Like it or not Britain was broken, the extremes making all the running. Yes, leaving the EU is sad, for the EU no less than ourselves. However, if that is the price for putting our country together again, so be it. It would be nice to believe that with an effective government backed by a “stonking majority” Britain can achieve a new settlement with the EU which works for all. But is this what our new government really wants?

Every Saturday morning in synagogues throughout Britain the following prayer is recited

“May the supreme King of kings in his mercy preserve the Queen in life, guard her and deliver her from all trouble and sorrow. May he put a spirit of wisdom and understanding into the hearts of all her counsellors, that they uphold the peace of the realm, advance the welfare of the nation and deal truly and kindly with all Israel.”

Following the Election, I do at least feel that Britain has a government to whom this can apply. Boris Johnson now has extraordinary power. May he and his government be granted the wisdom and understanding that is going to be so badly needed.

smo. 17.12. 2019

Blog 83 – On Anti-Semitism: A Coda

Posted December 10, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Perhaps not surprisingly my blog 83 has generated a lot of feedback and comments.

Mostly favourable, but among them some readers have been deeply troubled by my reference to being “holocausted out”.

I now understand that concern. It calls for explanation and elaboration – the subject of this short coda which I hope that my readers will not be too “blogged out” to read. 

Let me begin by reproducing part of an email which I received from a reader who has worked with the Holocaust Educational Trust, of which he writes:

This organisation was founded 31 years ago with a view to teaching the Holocaust and lessons to be drawn from it to young people outside of the Jewish community. I have seen countless examples of young people who have heard a survivor or been to a site in Poland whose lives have been changed in terms of their outlook to all humanity. Maybe us Jews have been too immersed in this stuff – and indeed the ocean of anti-Israel sentiment – that we have become both cynical and obsessive.

But I can tell you that outside of the Jewish world the many thousands of students we reach are not “holocausted out” – although if I understand you blog correctly you are referring to within the Jewish world.  Within the Jewish world, I entirely agree that the Holocaust must not crowd out so much that is precious and distinctive about Judaism, and it is vital to criticise Israel and treat such criticism as valid where appropriate without screeching “anti-Semite!”.

My same reader goes on to take issue with my reference to the Holocaust having become “something of an industry”:

I fear that he is correct when he writes:

I would urge that you avoid this word; you join the likes of David Irving and assorted Holocaust deniers, Norman Finklestein (a virulent anti-Zionist) and other Israel haters who describe all Holocaust education/literature/film/documentary thus. It is true that there is much more awareness of the Holocaust these days beyond the Jewish community – something to be welcomed – and I remain convinced that effective Holocaust education for British non-Jewish students makes for a more tolerant and respectful society to the advantage of all – despite what we see all around us!

Alas, mea culpa!

So, allow me to elaborate. My concern about too much focus on the Holocaust, both within and outside the Jewish community, is not to deny its importance. My concern is indeed what it crowds out. Not merely “so much that is precious and distinctive about Judaism”. Research shows that within many Jewish communities both here in the UK and more especially in the USA there is a tendency for young Jews now to determine their Jewish identity significantly if not principally in terms of the Holocaust. There is also evidence that non-Jews who learn about the Holocaust in school know little or nothing about Jews or Judaism today.

I am also concerned about its effect on Jews and Israelis living their lives today. This is a huge topic, one that maybe I will return to another time. For now, just two thoughts, both quite difficult:

The first relates to Israel. Having lived in Israel I was frequently struck  by the seeming paradox that whilst Israel is a strong country, economically, socially and militarily, it often behaves like a weak country, lashing out when it is strong enough not to have to, thereby stoking passions which might otherwise subside; its political leaders, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, constantly raising the spectre of annihilation, of “ a second Holocaust”

Closer to home, the second relates to the Jewish community here in the UK. I was struck by the words of Prince Charles at last week’s Buckingham Palace Reception for the Jewish Community. They are in my blog but they bear repetition:

“the festive season was a fitting moment to celebrate the “contribution of our Jewish community to the health, wealth and happiness of the nation. In every walk of life, in every field of endeavour, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends”. The UK, he insisted, is “enriched by the diversity of its constituent parts. Its whole is so much greater than its parts”.

“I see this as the least I can do to try to repay, in some small way, the immense blessings the Jewish people have brought to this land and, indeed, to humanity,” he said. “In the Hebrew Scriptures, which provide so much of the ethical underpinning of our society, we read in The Book of Deuteronomy, the inspiring exhortation: ‘Choose life!’

How often do we hear such words within the Jewish Community? Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has done a brilliant job as speaker and broadcaster bringing the wisdom and humanity of Judaism to the wider community. Yet, Lord Sacks apart, how often do we hear Jewish voices speaking proudly of Jewish values and what the Jewish Community brings to this country? 

Of course, awareness and understanding of the Holocaust remains vital. But I believe that the narrative of the Holocaust needs now to move beyond the horrors of the genocide to the wondrous story of the rebirth and renewal of the Jewish People in their own state and as proud citizens of numerous countries around the world. Echoing Prince Charles, let us tell the story not so much of death but of Jewish life post the Holocaust. It is a confident, wonderfully positive story of which we can and should all be proud.

smo 10.12.2019

Blog 83 – On Anti-Semitism

Posted December 8, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , ,

I never ever expected to write about anti-Semitism.

I am one of those within the Jewish Community who are “holocausted out”, who fear that, 70+ years on, the Holocaust has become something of an industry, who feel that maybe everything that can be said and written about the Holocaust has been said and written and that within the Jewish world over concentration on the Holocaust is crowding out so much else that is precious and distinctive about Judaism and Jewish life.

Perhaps with a similar mindset I have also resisted those Jews here whom I felt were maybe over keen to look for antisemitism within any criticism of Israel.

My family came to this country many generations ago. Three of my grandparents were born here and the fourth came as a young child. This is still somewhat unusual among my generation of British Jews. In the Second World War my father was an officer in the Royal Artillery, my mother was an ambulance driver in the Red Cross, her brother and all her cousins served in the British Army. We are that sort of family; northern (Yorkshire and Tyneside), British and Jewish, probably in that order.

An only child, my parents made what for my mother in particular must have been a huge sacrifice, at age 13 sending me away to school in York. That school was Bootham,  an astonishingly good Quaker school,  which had a contingent of Jewish boys. My parents knew what they were doing. As well as attending Quaker Meetings and experiencing the strength and sanctity of silent Quaker daily prayer, we Jewish boys also learned about our own religion from Rabbi Solomon Brown. R Brown came to teach us every Wednesday afternoon from Leeds, where he was a communal rabbi. For four years I held Rabbi Brown in great esteem and never missed his afternoons. Only much later in life when I came in contact with the Jewish Community in London did I begin to understand what a remarkable teacher he was (he had served as a chaplain in the British Army and was among the first to enter Buchenwald)  and against the background of Quaker witness, what an unusual Jewish education he had given us.

It was at Bootham that I first became aware of anti-Semitism.

Only once or twice from personal experience where stupid boys stroked their noses and made honking sounds when I entered a room. But even at the time I recognised this for the juvenile nonsense that it was and let it pass, as it did.

No, not from personal experience, but from the Eichmann Trial in April 1961, my last year at school. Of course, by then I knew about the Holocaust. As a boy I had read one of the first books to bring to the general public an account of what had happened. I can see it still in my mind’s eye but cannot recall t author or title so as to recover it. But although aware, it was too distant to be really real to a young boy in England. The testimonies at the Eichmann trial were real, being given by real people in real time. I was riveted. Already by then fascinated by history, thanks largely I believe to another extraordinary and unusual teacher Freddy Legg, whose voice I can hear to this day, this was history unfolding day by day. Not just the story of the holocaust, of the banality of evil as Hannah Arendt famously described it, but the story of the Jewish State, reborn from the ashes of the crematoria, bringing one of the principal functionaries of the holocaust to trial in Jerusalem. As A levels loomed, as I was approaching the end of my school days, the Eichmann Trial was a searing experience. Impacted by Eichmann , fortified by years of intensive Quaker and “secular” Jewish education, I left school with a pretty clear idea of who and what I was; like my family proud to be a Northerner,  immensely proud to be Jewish and of Jewish  statehood and of course indelibly British.

At University, Kings College Durham and then Newcastle, where I edited The Courier, the University student newspaper and went on to become Secretary of the Student Union I felt no need to go around “being Jewish”. It just wasn’t a factor.  My friends weren’t Jewish, I didn’t go to synagogue, if there were a J Soc I never went. Though I do vividly remember fasting right through the day on which the first edition of Courier came out since it was also Yom Kippur.

Life took its course. Starting and then chucking accountancy. Entering the law. Getting married. Becoming a partner in a good but largely Jewish law firm. Quitting and starting my own, very deliberately, and some time before any of these became fashionable, non-ethnic, non-sexist and non-ageist law firm.

All this time and no direct experience of anti-Semitism. Sure, there were people whom I realised didn’t especially like me and maybe my being Jewish was part of it. But then there were people whom I didn’t especially like for all sorts of reasons. So, this never bothered me too much. There also seemed to be more people who actually did seem to like me or were at least ready to do business with me, so why worry.

There was just one seminal moment where what might be identified as some sort of anti-Semitism reared its head and which might be worth recounting.

My law firm was still small, approaching ten partners I recall. We were about to make a huge move – from the West End to beautiful state of the art offices on a single floor of a massive building in Covent Garden. We had also resolved to ditch the “small firm” Simon Olswang & Co name with which I had started in favour of a new “corporate” name and logo fit to brand the law firm of the future that we were set on creating. Servicing many media and communications clients, we had access to the best design consultancies, one of whom came up with the utter simplicity of OLSWANG as the name and look. Not so extraordinary now but revolutionary at the time. Too revolutionary perhaps for undoubtedly the most brilliant of my then partners who, thoroughly principled and un-bigoted as he was, suggested that perhaps we would be better off with the name Olswang Devereux (Mark Devereaux being the next most senior partner). Losing the force of the single name, I asked why this suggestion, though of course I was pretty sure that I knew the reason.

Because some of our clients or those whom we would like to become our clients might be happier with a name that was “more English”, came the answer. My response was immediate and emphatic.

“If there are any clients or potential clients who are uncomfortable with the fact that this firm has a Jewish senior partner, after whom it is named, then this is not the firm for them. And if there is anyone around this table who is in any way uncomfortable with that then they should leave now.” Silence. End of story. OLSWANG it was.

So to now.

Still, I have no direct experience of anti-Semitism, whether at work, at play or where we live. 

But Corbyn has changed everything.

Just as, through legislation and social pressure, the expression of racial hatred and hatred of gays has been de-legitimised and more recently work place discrimination and sexual abuse experienced by women has become unacceptable, it seemed a given that the public expression of anti-Semitism just could not happen in this country.

Not any longer. That  Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, a modest, mild mannered, gentle human if ever there were one, as unpolitical as one can be, felt it necessary to intervene in this month’s general election to call out the institutionalised anti- Semitism which now pervades the upper echelons of the Labour Party, is still frankly almost unimaginable.

Last week, for the first time in its 106-year history, the New Statesman, the left-leaning political magazine, announced that it would not endorse the Labour Party.   The editorial read: “A party that cannot be trusted in relation to Jews cannot be trusted at all.”

That a major British parliamentary party, and Her majesty’s Opposition at that, should be the subject of a formal investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is also extraordinary. Even more so, what is being investigated. According to an article in today’s Sunday Telegraph, the (leaked) final submission of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to the EHRC reveals that the Labour party is “”now wholly infected. Those who do not personally incite Jew-hatred tolerate and deny it, which amounts, in this climate, to the same. Their punitive processes are partial and corrupt. Corbyn’s pathological hatred of Israel, and his refusal to accept that Jews are a vulnerable minority because we do not behave as he thinks vulnerable minorities should behave have ruined him and his party. A Labour Jew was called “a Tory Jew”, a “child killer” and “Zio scum” by fellow members. He was told to “shut the f&&k up, Jew” and that “Hitler was right”. Jews were jeered out of Labour Party meetings; told to go and count their money; told that Jews are over-represented in “the Capitalist ruling class”. “

Worthy of Der Sturmer, the Nazi broadsheet, this is in Britain, 2019, just seventy-four years after the fall of Hitler.

Of course, this is not Nazi Germany. A wonderful thing about this country and this election has been the public reaction to Rabbi Mervis’s intervention. Church leaders and leaders from other faiths across the spectrum, Muslims among them, have spoken out in support. The press and political leaders likewise. Jeremy Corbyn has been repeatedly questioned and taken to task.

On Thursday a reception took place in Buckingham Palace to celebrate the place of the Jewish Community in Britain. It had been arranged long before the General Election was called. However to avoid any election related issues no parliamentary candidates or press were invited.  The band of the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade (JLGB) played. The reception was hosted by Prince Charles who said

“the festive season was a fitting moment to celebrate the “contribution of our Jewish community to the health, wealth and happiness of the nation. In every walk of life, in every field of endeavour, our nation could have had no more generous citizens, and no more faithful friends”. The UK, he insisted, is “enriched by the diversity of its constituent parts. Its whole is so much greater than its parts”.

“I see this as the least I can do to try to repay, in some small way, the immense blessings the Jewish people have brought to this land and, indeed, to humanity,” he said. “In the Hebrew Scriptures, which provide so much of the ethical underpinning of our society, we read in The Book of Deuteronomy, the inspiring exhortation: ‘Choose life!’

The Prince of Wales with JLGB members (Credit: Board of Deputies of British Jews)
The Prince of Wales with JLGB members

No Nazi Germany here.

Britain remains the thoroughly decent nation it has long been.

And yet.

It has often been said that in a sense the Jews are akin to the proverbial canary in the coal mine. When a nation starts to mistreat its Jews you can be sure that worse is to come. As recently as October this year In an exclusive interview with UN News, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief speaking at UN headquarters in New York  described antisemitism as the “canary in the coalmine of global hatred”, which presents serious challenges to the elimination of all forms of intolerance, hatred and discrimination based on religion or belief, and poses risks to members of minorities everywhere, as well as to Jews.

I will finish with a local example.

Until this election my local MP has been Catherine West. She took the seat for Labour in 2015 from Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone. I got to know Catherine a little when I found myself involved in trying to bring about the creation of a new centre party, an endeavour which sadly proved spectacularly unsuccessful. A Quaker, highly educated  and clearly exceptionally able, with passionate Remain credentials and evident concern for the environment, plus the fact that she had been sacked by Jeremy Corbyn from his front bench, I believed that she was exactly the kind of person whom I would like to see representing me in parliament.

When the election was called I wrote to her;

Dear Catherine,

You have been much in my mind these election weeks.  I was therefore both delighted and far from surprised by the contents of your election letter to me.

Delighted to receive it and unsurprised that you should focus on your record as a Remainer and climate campaigner. With absolutely no mention of your Party’s manifesto offering.

Of course, you will understand why with Jeremy Corbyn as your Leader it is impossible for my wife and I to vote Labour; not only his appalling record on antisemitism but the entire thrust of yesterday’s manifesto:  back to the seventies, only worse.

Having met you and seen you at work there is so much that you stand for that I admire and would wish to support.

If only, like your illustrious processor Lynn Featherstone,  you were in the Lib Dems, or Labour were the party it used to be.

For Europhile centrists like me this is a ghastly election; a choice between too deeply unattractive alternatives, but of which currently alas Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn and those around him (it’s not just him) is by far the worse.

Kindest personal regards,

Simon

And this was her reply:

Thanks Simon.  I’m obviously very sorry to hear that but very best wishes to you both.  

Kind regards

Catherine

So far so good. Except that it isn’t.

Yesterday morning I visited Highgate Synagogue. To my dismay Catherine West was the topic of much discussion

In a recent constituency husting answering a question on antisemitism in the Labour Party she is on record as saying

“I do feel like as an MP for this area I feel like I’m squeezed between the two sides of this debate“. 

What debate Catherine? Whether anti semitism in the Labour Party really exists? Or if it does exist, whether as Jeremy Corbyn maintains, the Labour Party is doing everything it needs to to address it? Or whether there is enough anti semitism in the Labour Party to stop just talking about it?

If what is being said about and done to Jews in the Labour Party were about any other non-white racial group, there would be universal condemnation amongst right-minded people. So, Catherine what exactly are the two sides to this debate?

I have little doubt that Catherine West believes herself to be a thoroughly right thinking decent Christian person. How she can square this with campaigning for Prime Minister a man who has presided over the widespread vile anti-Semitism revealed in today’s Sunday Times is frankly beyond me. But that’s the evil. Anti-Semitism is a disease. It infects even good people who don’t even realise they are infected.

In 1770 Edmund Burke understood that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

That’s Britain’s problem today. We have as our main opposition a Labour Party full of many otherwise no doubt decent people doing nothing whilst the evil of anti-Semitism rages unchecked.

That’s Catherine West.

And that’s the worry now in Britain. Not that Britain has suddenly become anti-Semitic and certainly not that we’re about to become Nazi Germany. Rather that thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and those around him the disease which is anti-Semitism is now at large. Unless firmly eradicated there’s no knowing where it stops or whom it will infect.

Of course, if tactical voting against Brexit allows Corbyn in to No 10, then it’s much much worse. In that event truly all bets are off – for the Jewish Community, for the country and quite possibly for Prince Charles as well.

These are difficult days.

smo 08.12.2019

Appendix. Text of the letter sent last week by Jonathan Middleburgh, Former Chairman of Highgate Synagogue to Catherine West. Read to the end.

Dear Catherine,

One reason that I did not reply to your email was that I had spoken at the time to someone from the Highgate Jewish Community who did see you a week later at your surgery. He told me that you had been unable to give him any specific assurances about concrete decisive action that you would take to challenge the leadership of the Labour Party about their abject failure to tackle antisemitism. 

At last night’s hustings you commented: “I do feel like as an MP for this area I feel like I’m squeezed between the two sides of this debate“. 

You clearly have still not understood the utter dismay of the UK Jewish community at the failure of the leadership of the Labour Party to deal with anti-Semitism. As you will know 87% of the Jewish community in a recent poll, an overwhelming majority, considered Jeremy Corbyn to be an anti-Semite. 47% in the same poll said that they would seriously consider emigrating should Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister.

According to YouGov polling reported this week and commissioned by the Campaign against Anti-Semitism in conjunction with Kings College London, anti-Semitism in the far left has overtaken anti-Semitism amongst far right parties.  66% of British adults who expressed support for Jeremy Corbyn also expressed at least one anti-Semitic view and 33% expressed four or more anti-Semitic views.

Catherine, there are no “two sides” to this debate. If these figures were reported in relation to the black community or any other non-white racial group, there would be universal condemnation amongst right-minded people.

As a lifelong campaign met against racism, which I accept that you are, I implore you to examine your conscience and whether you should legitimately be campaigning for Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister of this country.

Here is a man who over many years has shared platforms with notorious antisemites, described extremists such as Hamas and Hezbollah as being his “friends” and failed to spot or call out egregious anti-Semitism, such as the notorious mural. His blindspot results from a one-sided worldview, which sees the State of Israel as an evil force within the Middle East. His explanation for calling terrorists “friends” – that this is all a part of his quest for peace – would only make stand up to scrutiny if there was a shred of evidence that he has ever called a member of the Israeli government or the Israeli Trade Union movement a friend. He has not.

Islamophobia is clearly a real problem in the UK. However the failure of others to tackle Islamophobia cannot and should not be used as an excuse to let off Jeremy Corbyn from his failure to deal with anti-Semitism. I have heard first hand harrowing testimony from each of Ruth Smeeth, Dame Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger in relation to the anti-Semitic abuse they have endured; and despicably the abject failure of the leadership of the Labour Party to deal with their concerns and indeed to spend any time engaging with them whatsoever.

Catherine, you will be judged by your Jewish constituents, unfortunately, on your actions and not on your words. You wrote a lovely reply to my email and you apparently spoke articulately to my friend who visited your surgery. But your actions, and your failure to stand up and to condemn your party’s leader, regrettably mean that I could not possibly vote for you in the upcoming election.

At the Muswell Hill hustings, you said that you did not recall telling a Jewish woman concerned about antisemitism that she was at least wealthy enough to leave the country. 

I know that you made that comment as the person you made it to related to me in disbelief shortly after you made it to her. You owe her an apology. 

Best wishes

Jonathan 

Blog 82 – Belonging

Posted October 17, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

We have recently emerged from the period of what, when I was growing up, were known as the Jewish High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). Days when, however infrequent their visits during the preceding year, Jews who belong to any sort of Jewish Community will invariably visit the synagogue (or “shul” as it is still referred to colloquially, a throwback to the shtetl where the place for education and where religious services were held was one and the same).

And this year, days immediately preceded by the seeming miracle of Susie and I arriving in one piece at the 50th Anniversary of our marriage which had taken place long long ago on 2nd September 1969. A happening so extraordinary that we felt that we simply could not let it pass unmarked – and therefore must be celebrated. Not by a cruise or holiday of a lifetime, but at home, in the synagogue which as a young married couple we had helped to found, among family and friends, on a regular saturday morning shabbat service. To which I shall return.

But first Rosh Hashana. The New North London Synagogue (NNLS), the name we hit upon for our then tiny community, has proved so popular that different service are required to accommodate the huge number of members who wish to participate. At one of these, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, we were treated to an address given by Rabbi Shoshana Gelfand. Note “Rabbi” in her own right not ” rebetezen”, the word for a rabbi’s wife. Our services are traditional, their format and content immediately familiar to any orthodox Jew. Less traditional in that we have opened them up to women on equal terms to men. Without having to leave traditional Judaism for Reform or Liberal Judaism women in our community can and do study and train to become rabbis. R Gelfand however, although qualified and fully recognised as a rabbi, is not a rabbi of our Community, nor indeed of any other. She spoke to us as a fellow congregant.

Fittingly perhaps, the topic that she chose was not obviously a religious one. In contradistinction to the harmony and goodness of God having created the world and mankind which is the essential celebration of Rosh Hashanah, her topic was the discord and increasingly violent language of political intercourse apparent everywhere one looked – Britain over Brexit, the split election result in Israel, Trump in the USA, the list is endless. How did it happen? What’s going on? Can it be understood? What’s to do?

By way of answer she told us of the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. In his book “The Religious Mind ~ Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” Professor Haidt sets out to answer some of the most compelling questions about human relationships.

Why can it sometimes feel as though half the population is living in a different moral universe?  Why do ideas such as “fairness” and “freedom” mean such different things to different people?  Why is it so hard to see things from another viewpoint?  Why do we come to blows over politics and religion? Haidt says that we often find it hard to get along because our minds are hard wired to be moralistic, judgemental and self righteous.  He explores how morals evolved to enable us to form communities, and how moral values are not just about justice and equality – for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty matter more. 

Good meat for Rosh Hashanah.  Enough that coming home I immediately downloaded Haidt’s book.  Yet scarcely the sort of Rosh Hashanah morning sermon that one might typically expect.

But then there’s little about the NNLS that is typical.  When I was living in Israel I used to tell people that for my Judaism I had to come back “home” to London.  Which given Netanyahu’s insistence on defining Israel as the” Jewish State” may seem curious if not perverse.  I mentioned earlier the different services which are needed to accommodate the huge number of NNLS  members who wish to participate.  But it’s not just numbers.  It also accommodates people’s preferences for different forms of service; the”traditional” where men and women sit separately and women do not read from the Torah (Biblical Law) and the more recent “egalitarian “ where men and women are equal. Where with married daughters and granddaughters growing up fast I now belong.

Yet this is something of a puzzle. The more I see of traditional Orthodox Judaism the less I can relate to it. Worse, the more I see so how some (and sadly not a few) Orthodox Jews conduct themselves in daily life the more alienated I feel. These are not my people. Their religion is not mine. So how come my feelings of being part of a synagogue are so strong?

How is that when it came to marking our 50 years of marriage the NNLS was where we wanted to do it?

Professor Haidt possibly has part of the answer. His research clearly shows that when it comes to how people feel and indeed vote, the place where they feel they belong is often the determining factor. Brexit can best be understood if one appreciates the failure of generations of British political leaders to expound the European ideal. With the result that unlike in continental Europe, so few Britons really feel European, still viewing Europe as “over there” and evaluating membership of the EU in terms of economics and maybe politics but seldom in terms of a Project which they feel is theirs and to which they truly belong.

My eldest grandson is a pupil at University College School in Hampstead, a school with perhaps as many as 30% Jewish students. Few if any could be said to be “religious” or “observant״ in any usual sense of those words. There is a plethora of Jewish  faith schools in the area which cater to the needs of the more observant. But he was telling me of the phenomenon which he had observed, that whilst his non Jewish nominally Christian friends mostly retained little or no connection with their religion this was not true of his Jewish friends. Virtually without exception they all “belonged” to and had been bar mitzvah in one shul or another, their families mainly observed  Friday nights as family  time apart. They identified as being Jewish in some meaningful sense.

Observing our communal life here in London I coined the phrase “Social Judaism” to describe what I saw here. Social Judaism, as I term it, is strong, culturally vibrant, socially active, caring and outward looking. Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for boys and girls are meaningful and fuel regular synagogue attendance. Even where one partner to a marriage is not Jewish often the children are brought up to be Jewish if they wish to remain so. Yet in most cases the one thing that Social Judaism is not is “religious” – religious that is in the traditional sense of shabbat observance, keeping kashrut (not just at home), taking the Festivals off work and other badges of the traditional religion. So why does it endure? What is that is so attractive that unlike my grandson’s non Jewish friends he and his Jewish friends, and their families, remain connected to their faith?

My answer is – the sense of belonging. We all need to belong. The pace and geographic rootlessness of modern life, the digital global economy and the impact of social media combine to undermine and remove the sense of community and belonging that until maybe just a couple of generations ago we could all take for granted.

Liverpool Football Club engenders so much passionate support among millions around the world who scarcely know where Liverpool is because the same technology which has destroyed local communities has made it possible to create a virtual community of supporters who feel a sense of belonging to something as accessible and distinctive as LFC.

In NNLS, full of people who very largely share our values and ideals, we have created a place where my wife and I can belong, as individuals, as husband and wife, as parents and grandparents, as proud members of the British Jewish Community, the place which has become home, the only place where we could properly celebrate 50 years of marriage.

Partying at home afterwards !

smo 17.10.2019

Blog 81 – Hampstead on Sea

Posted August 16, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Time for a light summer blog.

I am writing this by the sea in Herzliya, For those unfamiliar with Israel, Herzliya is a rather up market beach community a 20 minute taxi ride just north of Tel Aviv. Not just beach though. It is also a mini hi-tech centre, home to the IDC, an increasingly well regarded private university college, and with its adjoining town a significant commercial hub in its own right befitting from its proximity to Tel Aviv proper.

We are fortune to have a tiny apartment here> Tiny but perfectly positioned a few meters from the beach with an uninterrupted view from our balcony towards the high rises and twinkling lights at night of Tel Aviv. With the bonus of a brilliant pool.

It’s bliss.

We are not alone. This time of year Herzliya becomes also Hampstead on Sea. One of our daughters is here with her family. Together it seems with huge numbers of their friends, enjoying the casual life style and freedom for their kids to go out without fear of mugging or worse. The beach and streets here are safe. It’s only when here that one realises the difference from London where street violence is never out of mind. Indeed parents say that a major reason to summer here is the knowledge that their children can safely experience the freedom of being independent.

It’s fun for us too, unexpectedly running into our grandchildren and their friends, many of those friends themselves scions of families we knew when we were first a couple, now some fifty years ago!

With fifty years of marriage coming up fast, it’s also reassuring to see the generations continue, building on the foundations created by our own lives and those of our parents, facing a turbulent world with what is either extraordinary confidence or blissful ignorance..

A week later.

Now in London. I returned early so that I could have back surgery which originally was planned for after the summer. However, as soon as I arrived in Israel it became clear that it needed doing, that delaying was not a sensible plan. It’s good to have it behind me. Three nights in hospital and now the luxury of recuperating in the back end of the English summer. Not too hot and not too cold. The garden a joy of white flowers.

Friends dropping in. Some amazing reads on my Kindle, among them Andrew Roberts’ life of Napoleon (Roberts also the author of the recent rightly acclaimed Churchill, Walking With Destiny) and Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and The Traitor, the “truth is stranger than fiction” true story of Oleg Gordievdky, The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War.

What more could I ask for?

Well there is something. All this well being is against the background of times more personally sinister than I can ever recall. Yes, I have lived through various crises of the Cold War. But never have I felt that the life in the UK that I know and love and have always felt to be secure is now imperilled.

Everywhere abroad the first question is about Brexit. Here, bizarrely or perhaps understandably, no one wants speaks about it. Daily the now near certainty of a hostile no deal Brexit looms larger. And with it the real possibility of a Labour led coalition government with MacDonald as Chancellor, the unification of Ireland within the EU (the only way to avoid a hard border) and not far behind the break up of the remainder of the Union – with a independent Scotland rejoining the EU. A sense of resignation prevails. Exhausted from four years of acrimonious debate and recrimination the prevailing mood, cleverly exploited by the Johnson Government, seems to be “anything but just let it end”

Does this matter ? Surely life will go on?

Well maybe. Remember the 70’s anyone? Until rescued by Margaret Thatcher, Britain the Sick Man of Europe. Run down public services. Lousy infrastructure. The Unions in control. Broken public finances. High taxation making tax exiles of people with talent, energy and ambition. Not a place where those of our young people who can get up and go, nor others who have choices, are likely to want to stay for long. And surely not the place to attract investment.

Of course BoJo and his band of Brexit believers might just pull it off. The EU may blink and offer a no back stop deal. Though when trust is so absent and the Johnson government so hostile it’s hard to see how. Trump may offer a trade deal on terms which whilst heavily America First allow the UK to function as something of an American Protectorate. Against the odds, the UK alone in a perilous world may just work. It all looks horribly perilous. And for what?

Perhaps I am just one of Boris Johnson’s remoaners However reading history is informing. The biographies of Napoleon, Churchill, Gordievsky , all speak of the extraordinary effect of sound leadership – and its absence. It’s hard to see in Boris the qualities of a Churchill, Thatcher or even a Blair.

If only.

Never have I so wanted to be wrong.

smo 16/08/2019

Blog 80 Generation Games

Posted June 17, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

75 is an interesting age.

Obituaries regularly feature people younger or not much older. There is nothing exceptional about people dying in their seventies. A full life span surely. Amos Oz for example was 77 when he passed away (no one “dies” these days) recently.

But hey, that’s not me. I’m not done with life.

But is life done with me?

I have had this disturbing thought recently as one by one the various company board appointments that I have been fixtures of my life in recent years have come to an end. Some by simple effluxion of time – statutory term limits, company age limits. Others really just to make way for a younger generation. Understandable. Foreseeable. Nonetheless surprisingly painful and unsettling, especially when there has been no suggestion that I am past my sell date, unable to keep up or to contribute; just quite simply the passing of time.

All of which set me thinking.

A recent article in the Times Literary Review remains with me; a book review really. It’s subject was several books on ageing, one of which explored the condition of what were described as the young old, a nomenclature that I had not seen before. Sadly, the young old can become the old old in a moment – a fall, a diagnosis, a botched or otherwise unsuccessful operation. But until that moment the young old are something of a novel phenomenon. Of course, there were exceptions; yet when I was growing up, so just a generation ago, old age was something that started in the early seventies. Sprightly active eighty year olds were an exception to be remarked upon. By the rare nineties frailty or decrepitude was the general rule.

Today I know of few seventy-year olds who, absent illness, feel old. Seventy is the new fifty it is said. It’s a lie. But the determination to lead active lives of vigour, energy and enthusiasm is widespread. Accompanied by the means. We are the Baby Boomer generation, the generation who have had it all – free university education, affordable housing, birth control, medical advances taken for granted, foreign travel, absence of wars, and all the indulgences of mass affluence which, by and large, have left us facing the final decades of our lives buttressed by adequate pensions and unearned equity in our homes.

So, released from gainful employment, still physically active and mentally agile, what are we supposed to do with ourselves? That is the first question.

There is also another.

I turn now to our children’s generation. Those whom I shall call the old young. Why so? When I was approaching fifty my children were heading into their twenties. My daughters’ children are still all at school. When our generation reached our fifties, our parents had slowed down or even, sadly, were no longer with us. Even the brightest of them were among the elderly, then the polite term for the old. By and large these elderly folks did not do the same things as their children. Saga, and especially Saga Holidays, the company invented to cater for the needs of the elderly, targeted the over fifties!

Today the old young encounter a new phenomenon – a generation of the young old filling the same restaurants, going to the same theatres, watching the same films, bingeing on the same television series, booking the same holidays, visiting the same gyms as them. It may not be a problem but what do they make of it all? Useful as child minders and Bank of MumandDad, how do they really feel as we galivant around the globe spending our savings and the accumulated equity in our homes, “Skiing” * as the expression goes. And when we no longer can, and they the old young are maybe themselves becoming the no longer quite so young , how will they feel about taking care of us when we need it? Indeed, will they?

 *spending the kids’ inheritence

Maybe none of this resonates. Certainly, in my own family my children could hardly be more generous. Nevertheless daytime television is full of advertisements for equity release, the system by which the generation whose house mortgages are paid off can re-mortgage their homes to provide cash to spend now, the debt and rolled up interest being repaid on death. The cruise industry is awash with ever more new luxurious ships catering to those with the time and money to explore distant rivers and far flung corners of the world. Both industries which scarcely existed thirty years ago.

Yet when the hapless Theresa May suggested, rather sensibly  I thought, in her 2016 general election manifesto that those receiving old age care at the public expense should be willing on death to reimburse the public purse from the stored up equity in their houses, she was howled down by the media, (egged on incredibly by the Labour Party) who called it a death tax.

It’s not just life expectancy that has been prolonged.  So has death. Or as one of authors reviewed in the TLS article that I mentioned wrote, society hasn’t extended life so much as extended death. She has a point.

Atul Gawande, a graduate of Stamford, Balliol College, Oxford and Harvard Medical School, practices medicine in Boston. He is also a highly regarded author and the 2014 BBC Reith Lecturer. In his 2014 book “Being Mortal” Gawande explores two dilemmas about death and ageing with which we are only now beginning to grapple. The first is how we plan to care for loved ones who, though their bodies and minds are weakening, are granted great longevity. The second dilemma is how we manage the body’s decline when a “cure” is out of reach.”

He points to the tremendous success of modern healthcare: the infections that once killed most of us have been subdued, and the diseases that even a few decades ago killed us in our 60s and 70s – cancer, heart disease, stroke and emphysema – are increasingly treatable. This has produced a generation of the old old who live on – and on. But how to look after them? With their children, the old young, no longer able or willing to look after them at home, the old old invariably find themselves shunted off to so called care homes, institutions which “all too frequently provide neither care nor home and where an obsession with risk threatens to stultify the lives of those whose choices should be most cherished and respected – even if those choices shorten their lives.” Places in  which “we have exalted longevity over what makes life worth living.”

Something has gone seriously wrong when we have prolonged life but not the means to make that life worth living. Where our hospitals are clogged with people needing care which isn’t available. Where Local Authority budgets are overwhelmed by the cost of providing health care whilst those who may be relatively asset rich but income poor have no help from government or the tax system to find ways to provide for their own care costs.

And then there’s death itself. When our pets suffer, we put them down. “humanely” I was about to write until I realised the irony. The humane death that we give our animals we deny to us humans. In this society, the medical profession, the law and business are all deeply complicit. Doctors are trained to prolong life but not, where it would be kinder, to offer the means to hasten death – which in any event the law forbids; supported by clergy from diverse religions who whilst they can agree about little else, purport to place  sanctity of life, any life however wretched and unwanted, above relief of pain and suffering. And then there’s the entire edifice of big pharma and big business whose financial interest in medicating the last years of life is massive and speaks for itself. See chart below.

Is it any wonder that our failure to grapple with the implications of valuing longevity above quality of life and prolonging death is bankrupting the health service and making decent care unaffordable?

So, what’s to do? Where am I in all this? Where do I come out?

Above all, with enormous gratitude for every additional day of active life. Coupled with a growing realisation that for us, the new young old, our job is not yet done. It is we who must bring about the changes in society that are needed. Our children are not going to. They have other preoccupations. Nor whilst we remain active should we expect them to. Somehow it is we who must lead the charge.  To change society so that quality of life trumps longevity. To change our view of wealth so that where private assets exist, it is understood that, routinely, they must be available to contribute towards the cost of care; some form of tax incentivised public/private partnership comes to mind. And finally that when, as eventually it must, death becomes inevitable it need not be prolonged.

A tall order. No doubt. But looking back on the extraordinary changes during our lifetimes, surely this must be doable..

smo/17th june 2019

Blog 79 – South African Odyssey

Posted March 5, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Hoping that my readers will forgive me, and that some of you at least will come with me on the journey, I just have to write some more about South Africa. A month back in the UK, I still have not lost the sense of excitement, wonder and sheer enjoyment of each day.

The pleasures were many. So continuing where my last Blog 78 left off…..

From Hartford House, a joyous “English country house” style hotel surrounded by the rolling hills, paddocks and stables of the huge world renowned Summerhill horse stud farm, we spent the day heading north and then east through KwaZulu-Natal. Our destination was Fugitives Drift.

Our friendly hire car computer lady told us to expect a good five hours drive by way of LadySmith, of Boer War fame, Glencoe and Dundee and Rourkes Drift, every name telling its own story.

The South African roads are superb, running often in dead straight lines with huge vistas and wide skies full of intoxicating light and sunshine. By the roadside we caught glimpses of country life, small communities of shack like houses but going by by the sprouting TV aerials and dishes seemingly now with electricity and, judging by the extraordinarily clean clothes of the schoolchildren, presumably also mains water.

At Ladysmith we stopped for a bite of lunch, intrigued by its history and fascinated to see the new South Africa manifest in what looked like a rather prosperous mainly but not exclusively black town; also an opportunity to ask the local branch of Avis for instructions on how to master our car computer which seemed to have taken on a life of its own.

At Dundee the road was blocked. No explanation. Just a line across the main road DIVERSION. Eventually doubling back via Glencoe (the Scottish names said much)) we found our way. Next stop some two hours later on almost deserted roads, Rourke’s Drift reached by a solitary thirty minute drive along a barely marked dirt road leading off the main road into the empty distance.

Rourke’s Drift is the sight of the battle in which 140 years previously almost to the day, on the afternoon and evening of 22nd January 1879, 137 British soldiers beat off 4000 Zulu warriors, an epic victory made famous by the 1964 film ZULU staring Michael Cane and Stanley Baker. Less well known is the massive British defeat suffered at nearby Isandlwana the morning of that same same day.

The Battle of Isandlwana was the first major encounter in the Anglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Eleven days after the British commenced their invasion of Zululand in South Africa, a Zulu force of some 20,000 warriors attacked a portion of the British main column consisting of about 1,800 British, colonial and native troops and perhaps 400 civilians.The Zulus were equipped mainly with the traditional assegai iron spears and cow-hide shields, but also had a number of muskets and old rifles.The British and colonial troops were armed with the modern Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle and two 7-pounder (3-inch, 76 mm) mountain guns deployed as field guns, as well as a Hale rocket battery. Despite a vast disadvantage in weapons technology, the numerically superior Zulus ultimately overwhelmed the poorly led and badly deployed British, killing over 1,300 troops, including all those out on the forward firing line.

The battle was a decisive victory for the Zulus and caused the defeat of the first British invasion of Zululand. The British Army had suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous foe with vastly inferior military technology. The political ramifications back in London were huge.

Yet thanks to Zulu it is the battle of Rourke’s Drift that is mainly known.

Rourke’s Drift – The Simple Anglican Church commemorating the Battle
Rourke’s Drift – A recent memorial to the Zulu dead

But why am I writing this my readers must be wondering?

Read on.

Fugitives Drift Lodge, a fifteen minute drive beyond Rourke’s Drift is the home of the Rattray family. Three generations of Rattrays have put the battles of Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift on the world map, attracting visitors to their Lodge from around the English speaking world, most notably perhaps Prince Charles, and subsequently Princes Williams and Harry and the Duke of Edinburgh. David Rattray, a regular visitor to Sandringham, was known for his sell out annual lectures at the Royal Geographic Society in London in which in the most beautiful English prose he described the background and history of the Zulu Wars, the origin and culture of the Zulu nation, British objectives in South Africa, their respective military doctrines and capabilities, the geography of and what happened moment by moment at each of the battles, and the impact of their aftermath lasting right up to the present day (President Jacob Zuma and his cronies are Zulus) Sadly David also made the headlines by the manner of his untimely death in 2007 at the age 47, gunned down in his bedroom by five Zulu intruders.

Somehow, overwhelmed by grief but carried along by the most incredible waves of support and help from near and far, David’s wife Nicky and his three sons found the strength to stay on and continue to build David’s dream.

Today visitors to Fugitives Drift find the most attractive welcome: Simple but extremely comfortable accommodations overlooking the Buffalo River, a communal dining room with long tables open to the side, a fire pit, bar, lounge area and an enticing glass sided study area with uniforms, maps, replica VC’s and regimental colours from the Zulu wars. Surrounded by its own wild life Reserve, populated with giraffes, zebras and all manner of wild deer, Fugitives Drift has become a model for Zulu and English collaboration, with its tours of the Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift battle fields the highlight of every visit.

After a delicious breakfast served at first light, eight of us spent the next six hours in great heat following the exact timing of what happened on that January 22nd morning, driven out in our ubiquitous Toyota taxi bus, to the accompaniment of a commentary recorded by David Rattray before his death. Our proud Zulu driver and guide for the morning told us that his grandfather had fought at Isandlwana. His descriptions of the ebb and flow of battle, the different deployments, how the Zulus used their understanding of the local geography and power of the sun to blunt the technological superiority of the British, of the significance of Zulu culture, tradition and battle philosophy, delivered almost non stop in a haunting poetic flow of words, often repeated, in heavily accented English interspersed with Zulu, brought an understanding of and empathy with those combatants of long ago that was as extraordinary as it was unanticipated. Not a usual tourist experience.

Back to the Lodge for a late lunch 3.00 pm we were off again. This time driven by Douglas Rattray, David’s middle son, who spent the next four hours taking us minute by minute, in situ, through what happened at Rourke’s Drift that January 22nd afternoon, the exact timing that we were there, how 137 British Soldiers who had been detached from the main force which perished at Isandlwana held off the Zulu army which besieged them, earning 11 VC’s as they did do. Douglas has his father’s voice. I hear it still.

An extra joy of travel for me is the enhanced opportunity to read. Before leaving England I had been recommended An Unquiet Place, by Clare Houston . A new novel  which I would probably have never heard of but for my upcoming travels, recommended because of its setting near where we were going to be. I had picked it up somewhat tentatively. Then quickly found myself drawn into small town rural Afrikaans speaking South Africa, feeling the impact of events that had taken place during the Boer War a century before.

The Zulu wars. The Boer Wars. Afrikaans speaking South Africa. The Orange Free State. KwaZulu Natal itself. All new to me. South Africa no longer the familiar, comfortable mainly English speaking maritime and wine producing country in and around Cape Town. Tantalisingly there now beckoned a huge unfamiliar yet fascinating mosaic of peoples and histories of which I knew little.

From my childhood when I used to pour over pictures in the Children’s Encyclopaedia of Union Castle liners plying the seas to Cape Town and Durban, from my student days, when boycotting South Africa was all the thing and shortly after when my best friend David took himself off to Cape Town to marry Sharon, daughter of a prominent Cape Town surgeon, whom he had met at my own wedding a year earlier, distant South Africa always held a fascination for me. (Maybe it’s in my blood. Somewhere there is a picture of my grandfather Nathan Olswang in an ox cart deep  in the heart of South Africa, apparently looking for diamonds. He didn’t find any and returned to Newcastle.)

Small wonder then that the sight in 1990 on television of Nelson Mandela walking free from Victor Versatel Prison in suburban Cape Town affected me so greatly.  Or that  reading A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s own story in his own words in 1994 had a similar impact. An impact repeated  when in 2008, returning to London from Cape Town from riding a tandem for Norwood with our son James, I  picked  up at the airport  Playing the Enemy by John Carlin,  In it Carlin tells the inside story of how, shortly after his inauguration as State President, Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to demonstrate his support for the Springboks, until that moment the ultimate symbol of white (Afrikaans) supremacy, as now belonging to all South Africans. Subsequently the subject of another seminal film, INVICTUS 2009 staring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and directed by Clint Eastwood, this was a moment which captured the imagination of people everywhere, another example of Mandela’s extraordinary imagination and greatness.

All of which perhaps goes some way to explain the resonance which just being in South Africa came to have for me. I felt that I could take nothing for granted. Every interaction across what had been the most rigid racial boundaries was a minor miracle. How had this happened I found myself wondering. Was it for real? Or as so many naysayers prophesied, were the whites of a South Africa ultimately doomed in the same way as in neighbouring Zimbabwe? Could Cyril Ramaphosa turn back the tide of corruption which under President Zumba seemed to have engulfed almost every aspect of government?

All questions in my mind when, back in Cape Town and near the end of our visit, Susie and I had dinner with a cousin and her husband Richard Goldstone, retired Justice of the Constitutional Court, the newly minted Supreme Court of South Africa which Nelson Mandela inaugurated in 1995 with the words

The last time I appeared in court was to hear whether or not I was going to be sentenced to death. Fortunately for myself and my colleagues we were not. Today I rise not as an accused, but on behalf of the people of South Africa, to inaugurate a court South Africa has never had, a court on which hinges the future of our democracy.”

I put these questions to Richard. He was quietly optimistic. He knew and had worked with Ramaphosa. Yes he had a battle on his hands. But South Africa had great strengths. For a better understanding of these strengths he recommended me to read Anatomy of a Miracle, written in 1998 by Patti Waldmeir. Waldmeir had been the resident Financial Times reporter through the transition from apartheid to the Mandela era. Long out of print I found a second hand copy on Amazon.

It was a good recommendation. For once the back cover blurb was not hyperbole:

“The peaceful birth of black majority room in South Africa has been seen by many’s a miracle– or at least political magic.”

“One of the most authority reporters on the South African scene, trusted and respected by both sides and ideally positioned to write what she calls “a strange and wonderful tale of collective liberation” Her analytical skills are deadly.”

“Why did the Boers give it it all away? What led South Africa’s white rulers to hand over power voluntary voluntary and legislate themselves out of a job? To answer these questions she interrogated almost the entire cast of this late 20th century political thriller”

I had thought that with all that I had read, including the story of the 1956 Treason Trial which committed Mandela and the whole of the ANC leadership still in South Africa to life sentences on Robben Island, I had some understanding. Reading Waldmeir I realised that my ignorance was such that I didn’t even know what I did not know.

Especially revealing was her description of how in the aftermath of the Boer War the Afrikaaners, who regarded themselves as true South Africans, unlike the English  who had somewhere else to go, but also as victims of the British no less than the Africans regarded themselves as victims of apartheid. Mandela had spent 27 years on Robben Island studying the history and mindset of the Afrikaaner. He learned Afrikaans. He felt that he understood the Afrikaaner and used this understanding to persuade the National Government that sharing and eventually relinquishing absolute power was not inamicable to its true interests. That apartheid was a prison for white South Africa no less than for its black and coloured populations. That continuation of apartheid meant the continuation of South Africa as a pariah state, its economy forever blighted and contacts with the western world blocked.

Militarily the National Government felt impregnable. Whilst relaxing, even ending apartheid and admitting ANC to in subordinate role in government might be countenanced, majority rule was anathema.

Whilst for the ANC, after so many years of oppression, if it was to give up armed struggle, the only acceptable outcome of the ending of apartheid was absolute black rule. Nothing less could be considered.

Amos Oz, sadly now of blessed memory, believed that the willingness to compromise was strength not weakness.

Somehow understanding this, Mandela persuaded first the ANC leadership and then FW de Klerk, State President, that some form of power sharing, under a constitution where minority rights would be respected, was the way forward. That it was only by working together that each could be liberated from the prison that apartheid had become for them both.

Days before we left for South Africa, Israel prime minister Bibi Natanyahu called a snap election, scheduled to take place on April 9th. Inevitably perhaps, whilst immersed in the epic history of South Africa, comparisons and analogies with Israel were never far from my mind. If against all expectations South Africa could peacefully free itself from apartheid, was it so fanciful to imagine that Israel might some day free itself from the occupation of the West Bank (yes, charged words I know)? It was Ben Gurion who said “In Israel, in order to be a realist one must believe in miracles”

Can Israel experience its own miracle? Is there a Mandela somewhere? And a de Klerk? Can Jew and Arab learn the art of compromise, understanding it as strength not a weakness? Or are the destructive forces of religion, largely absent from South Africa, just too strong? Could it be that maybe, just maybe, this election, called by Natanyahu prematurely when he didn’t need to, may be the beginning?

smo London 4th March 2019

Blog 78 A Short Blog from South Africa

Posted January 16, 2019 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

This past week my wife and I have been enjoying a needed winter break in South Africa.
You might think escaping not only the UK winter weather but also the Brexit turmoil.
Not a bit of it – when even the local waiter in an extremely un-fancy fish restaurant in a small town outside Cape Town, on discovering that we come from London, wants to know what on earth is going on with Brexit.
Time and time we hear the same. What has happened to normally sane and rational British politics? How can a small island that had everything going for it inside the EU imagine that it can be better off alone as “mud island” adrift in the Atlantic Ocean? As has just been asked of me by the manager of the rather wonderful country house hotel in  Kwa Zulu Natal where I am writing this.
Being here underlines, if indeed it ever needed underlining, how much we really do live in one world.
South Africans, black and white, have traditionally looked up to the UK. Now they shake their heads in bewilderment and dismay.
Sure,South Africa has its problems. Yesterday we took a detour to visit the place where Nelson Mandela was captured at the start of what became 27 years of imprisonment. By the side of a quiet country road there has been constructed a most moving memorial. Consisting of an apparently haphazard assembly of metal poles, as one approaches down a simple pathway marking the milestones of Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, his face emerges.

It is most moving. And a reminder of what an incredible journey this entire nation has embarked upon. One sees it everywhere. Yet it’s all too easy to take for granted. Out of a colonial and then a brutal apartheid past, in less than thirty years a truly multi racial powerhouse of Africa has emerged. Without bloodshed. With the rule of law. Still with great poverty but with economic conditions beyond the imagination of most other peoples of Africa. And notwithstanding appalling corruption under President Zuma, with a clearly functioning democracy. Believing in and building the South African future.
Efficient airports, many astonishingly good roads. Functional hospitals. Improving education. The list is long.
As a visitor it’s deeply impressive.
Rose tinted spectacles you may be thinking. In a way,maybe. ‘‘Twas ever thus. But no one can take away the achievement.
Unable to avoid Brexit, the contrast between the optimism and confidence that one I sees here and the negativity in Britain is shocking. Here a poor country, with a horrible history of political oppression, putting that past behind it and building the elements of a first world nation.
In Britain, a rich country which had everything (Remember the London 2012 Olympics – now a distant dream) until recently confident, outward looking, the gateway to Europe, a magnet to the young across the world, now self absorbed, inward looking, increasingly xenophobic, obsessed with making itself poorer and irrelevant.
I can only feel ashamed.
Whilst praying that somewhere in The House of Commons, under Britain’s unwritten constitution the only place this can happen, there are enough decent, capable and brave Members to save Britain from its useless political leaders

.

smo 16.01.2019

Blog 77 – A Brexit Birthday

Posted December 13, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Today is my 75th birthday.  My feelings of gratitude and some amazement at being here, a little battered recently but still in relatively good shape, are profound.

Seventy five years bring with them a sense of perspective.  Perspective on a life lived, on friends and family.  And today, perspective on Brexit. I have deliberately avoided the topic. There has been too much written and said.  Nevertheless I crave the indulgence of my readers to express a few thoughts.

The first, as Winston Churchill pointed out in those vital five days in May 1940 when Neville Chamberlain’s premiership was failing, is that all power lies in the Chamber of the House of Commons. That is where it all happens.  And now, with television, we can see it for ourselves.

Westminster, “the Mother of Parliaments” is a representative democracy.  Under our, albeit unwritten, constitution Members of Parliament are elected as representatives but not as delegates.  Edmund Burke, expressed it succinctly when he told the voters of Bristol in 1774 “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.  Referenda, unknown in Britain until 1975, subvert this democracy.  By handing decisions to the people, Members of Parliament abrogate their responsibility.

A benefit of representative democracy is that it allows for change, for nuance, for pragmatic decision making.  Which referenda do not.  We now see the impact of this.  “The people voted for Brexit.  Therefore we must deliver it” parrots the Prime Minister – ignoring the fact that virtually any sort of Brexit, certainly anything that’s on the table now, just isn’t workable.  The result – impasse.

Mrs May is decent, probably not very bright, seemingly emotionally unintelligent and sadly therefore politically inept.  Yet, rightly, the British people evidently prefer her to Jeremy Corbyn who is unpleasant, dishonest and extreme.  Neither of them offer a way out of the mess in which, thanks to the 2016 referendum, Parliament and Government now find themselves.

Last week, on the day of the big debate, my wife Susie and I saw Kier Starmer and Hilary Benn interviewed in the lobby of the House of Commons.  Susie remarked that if either of them were leading the Labour Party, Labour would be in with a landslide. Alas, they are not.

So it’s back to Parliament.  Despite my despair and, to my readers abroad, my shame over the current situation, at least for now I still need to believe that at the end of the day, the British people are sensible and pragmatic.  I have found it striking that with all that is going on around Brexit, on the Underground, in meetings, at the theatre, queuing the cinema, spending time with friends, watching sport, all remains calm.  Compare this with France where the “gilets jaunes” are burning cars and choking on tear gas.

Here, remarkably, Parliament is still where it is all happening.

So what now?  It’s impossible to know, of course.  But I believe that some things are clear:

  • Mrs May’s deal won’t and can’t happen.
  • Neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition speak for their parliamentary parties.  This leaves only Parliament itself.  Somehow, by some means, Parliament will have to work out what to do.
  • More than once Daniel Finkelstein, Deputy Editor of The Times, has written of his mother, a refugee from Nazi Germany, remarking that “whilst the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, she feels safe in Hendon”.  Constitutionally of course it’s Queen in Parliament rather than Queen in Buckingham Palace, but that’s to quibble.  Mrs Finkelstein is right. Queen in Parliament is where, under Britain’s representative democracy, all power resides.  Although dented by the Brexit referendum this remains true.

Thus it is that, on this my 75th birthday, despite my unavoidable feelings of dismay and apprehension, I nevertheless retain a hope and belief in Parliament itself.  Please God that I am right.

 

smo/ 13.12.2018

 

 

Blog 76 – On Being a Former Person

Posted October 1, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

 

One of the delights of my current stage of life is having a little more time to read, a little more time to be rather than just do.

For our Book Club later in the year I had been reading Anthony Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, Initially set around the time of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, the tale tells of the life of Count Alexander Ilych Rostov who, by a strange quirk of fate, finds himself sentenced by a Revolutionary Tribunal to house arrest for life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel where he had previously maintained a rather grand suite.

Of course Rostov is expelled from his magnificent suite to a  one room garret in the roof where he sets about constructing  a much reduced life as a Former Person. I shan’t spoil the story. Suffice to say that, slow to get going, the reader is soon drawn into the mindset of and absorbed by the strange and unexpected adventures of this Former Person. A life as far removed from Count Rostov’s pre Revolutionary existence as a landed aristocrat as could be, which nevertheless passes without ever a hint of self pity or remorse for what was and is no more.

I am writing this on the terrace of The Old Coastguard Hotel in Mouse Hole, Cornwall, at the very end of England. Mouse Hole is tiny, little beyond a tiny tidal harbour with a narrow strip of sandy beach, an Inn, a few shops and what are now mainly holiday cottages; the hotel likewise, privately owned, modest but whose simple comforts and own brand of welcoming hospitality offer everything one needs and nothing one doesn’t for a perfect stay. However the idea for this blog come to me a while before.


Ten days ago was Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) that time in the Jewish Calendar for contemplating the year gone by and thinking of the year ahead. This year I spent that day in bed, felled by a heavy head cold that had gone to my chest. Not well enough for synagogue, but well enough to fast and, distracted neither by food nor electronic media, to savour the quietude,  to read, to think and to sleep.

Having recently finished Gentleman in Moscow, I had just begun David Brook’s The Road to Character. I wish that I could recall who first mentioned this book to me.  I am indebted to whomever it was. If, as I believe most likely, it was one of my readers, please identify yourself to me.
I had not heard of David Brooks, whom I now know to be a widely read Canadian-American columnist on the New York Times. He has a delightful style, a rare ability to carry the reader effortlessly along as he explores what are in reality some rather sophisticated and challenging concepts. An endeavour which I can recommend unreservedly.

I am not conventionally religious. I don’t subscribe to many of the supposedly required do’s and don’ts of traditional Judaism. Yet I belong. The structure of the religious calendar underpins life. Friday night is family night. Milestones in the journey through life, my own and those of family and close friends –  births, comings of age, marriages, deaths, Passover, the Jewish New Year, are marked according to Jewish tradition, often in synagogue. And. whilst I may not subscribe to many of the do’s and don’ts of Judaism I do subscribe to its moral tenets.

So it was that as I lay bed this Yom Kippur these words of David Brooks had particular resonance:

You could say there are two kinds of virtues on the world, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.   The resume virtues are the ones you list on your CV, the skills that contribute to external success.  The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re what get talked about at your funeral and they are usually the virtues that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful, what kind of relationships you formed over your lifetime.”

In his soul-searching book, David Brooks explores the road to character.  He describes how we live in a culture that encourages us to think about how to be wealthy and successful, but which leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the deepest inner life.  We know that this deeper life matters, but it becomes subsumed by the day-to-day, and the deepest parts of who are go unexplored and unstructured.  The Road to Character connects us once again to an ancient moral tradition, a tradition that asks us to confront our own weaknesses and grow in response, rather than shallowly focus on our good points.  It is a focus David Brooks believes all of us – including himself – need to reconnect with now.

Telling the stories of people through history who have exemplified the different activities that contribute to a deeper existence, Brooks uses the diverse lives of individuals such as George Eliot, Dwight Eisenhower and Augustine to explore traits such as self-mastery, dignity, vocation and love.  He hopes that through considering their lives it will fire the longing we all have to be better, to find the path to character.

I have described  Yom Kippur as a time of looking back at the year just passed, but all the while with an eye on the year ahead. A kind of annual “ The King is Dead. Long Live the King״.  As I lay quietly in bed. The Road to Character seemed a good companion on this journey.

Brooks starts by citing Lonely Man of Faith, written by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who recognised these two sets of virtues, the career virtues and the eulogy virtues and characterised them as belonging respectively to Adam I and Adam II. Brooks goes from there. Its strong stuff, often uncompromising.

“If you are only Adam I”  writes Brook, ” you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and turns everything into a game. If that’s all you have you spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills, but you don’t have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life…… Years pass and the deepest part of yourself goes unexplored and unstructured….. You find yourself doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not. You foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth. You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that not only your inner life but also your eternal life will eventually fall to pieces”

Brooks’ book is therefore about Adam II. “Its about how some people have cultivated strong character. Its about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart.”

Brooks is hard on himself, and so too on the reader. “Without a rigorous focus on the Adam II side of our nature, it is easy to slip into a self satisfied moral mediocrity” he writes. “You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires where they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you originally hoped”

I wrote this book” he says,” not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it”

Contemplating the year that had passed I realised that it was a year in which I had taken experienced some disappointments. If not on the scale of the Gentleman of Moscow,  I had twice become a Former Person, each time having to confront the reality of the passing of time, the uncomfortable truth that however bright and energetic I may have felt, the harsh reality was that I was getting older;  for that reason alone society required me  to make way for others because they were younger. Twice this happened. Once, with dignity and recognition of a job completed, as my term limited position as a statutory External Director of the Israeli clean water company on whose board I had served nine years, came to its appointed end. The other, less happily, as I was caught by a politically correct but entirely arbitrary age limit hastily adopted by the NASDAQ quoted software company on whose board I had long served but of which I found myself unceremoniously no longer a member.

I confess that at the time, the latter especially, mainly I suspect by the manner of its happening, came as something of a blow to the amour propre of my Adam I.

Yet as I turned the pages of The Road to Character and found myself book marking more and more pages and highlighting an ever increasing number of passages, it began to dawn on me that, whilst for sure my Adam I had done ok , through and perhaps because of the traumas, setbacks and ups and downs of life my Adam II was not in bad shape either.

I realised that, freed from the responsibilities and travel obligations of my former board positions, Count Rostov like I was rather enjoying life as a Former Person. That, though I had had never really consciously thought about it, somewhere along the line I must have paid more attention to nurturing my Adam II more than I had realised – and now this was standing me in good stead. That  whilst my Adam I has had perhaps more than its fair share of building, creating, producing and discovering, of high status and victories won, at the same time  by some miracle and rather to my surprise my Adam II had developed something of the serene inner character, of the quiet but solid sense of right and wrong, of that cohesive inner soul of which Brooks writes so stirringly. And without which all is disappointment.

Much for this Former Person  to celebrate and be grateful for as he moves forward into the year ahead.

smo/ 30.09.2018

Blog 75 Labour – For the Many Not the Jew

Posted September 6, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I returned to the UK from Israel at the beginning of 2015 realising that however much I had enjoyed and appreciated living in Galilee, London was where my family was and where I belonged.

All my life I have admired and supported Israel. Never uncritically, indeed often quite the contrary. But always conscious of the importance, post the Holocaust, of there being a Jewish state and of the bonds which connect Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Never feeling any conflict between my connection with Israel and my life in Britain.

I was brought up in Yorkshire where my grandparents and great grandparents lived. We have lived in the United Kingdom for six generations or more. My parents both served in World War Two, my father as an artillery officer, my mother as a Red Cross ambulance driver during the blitz. My great grandfather was among the founders of the once proud Sunderland Hebrew Congregation. My mother’s family were among the founders of the still flourishing Harrogate Hebrew Congregation. Susie and I were among 18 couples who founded the New North London Synagogue, now one of Europe’s fast-growing Jewish communities. I am the founder of a respected London law firm bearing my name which is now a valued part of  CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP, London’s sixth largest. For many years, among other appointments, I had the privilege of serving as a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews and as a member of the Board of Directors of the British Library. Throughout my life I have mixed, socialised and worked with Jews and non-Jews alike, without giving the fact of being Jewish so much as a moment’s thought.

Proud to be British, happy also to be Jewish, not once in my seventy-four years did it ever so much cross my mind that as a British Jew the day may come when I could not take all of this for granted. Never did I feel different, unwelcome or discriminated against. Sure, there were people who did not especially like Jews. As there were people who did not especially like Scots, Welsh, Indians, French, Germans or anyone else.  And yes, among my friends and acquaintances were those who (sometimes like me) were critical of Israel’s government and perhaps did not understand why I chose to have a home there. So be it. That was never a problem either.

Israel is indeed an unusual country. A narrow strip of sand and rocky hills, divided by the United Nations in 1948 when the British Mandate ended, between its Jewish and Arab populations Israel, the newly declared Jewish state  -with a population of only 650,000-  was immediately attacked by its much larger and more powerful  five neighbours plus Iraq. Against the odds it survived and expanded the tiny territory originally allocated and accepted by it. Subsequently by dint of hard work it prospered, turned its deserts green, and by good management and developing the technology of desalination solved its water crisis along the way. Frequently attacked, it developed a formidable citizen army. Under constant existential economic and military pressure and having few natural resources beyond the grit, determination and intelligence of its people it went on to become a technology powerhouse.

It is also a democracy. The only one in the area. 1.2 million of its 8million citizens are Druze, Christian or Muslim Arabs, fully represented in Israel’s parliament The Knesset, equal in law in every respect save for the obligation to join the army (though the Druze and some others do) and enjoying general levels of education, prosperity  civil and women’s rights women’s’ rights unknown in any Arab country.

It is country where an amazing kibbutz community for people with Special Needs gives our learning-disabled son a quality of life which would have been unavailable elsewhere.  It is a country where my wife and I are grateful to be able own a house and small mango farm in the hills of Galilee and to which, through our sometime presence here, we feel that we have been able to make some small contribution.

It is also far from perfect. After the Six Day War, where once again Israel faced extinction, its army found itself in occupation of Gaza and the parts of Palestine which had not been allocated to the Jewish state. This created a seemingly intractable problem. Ruling others was not in the plan. Worse, the combination of Islamic fundamentalism and the growth in numbers of Israel’s own brand of Jewish fundamentalists has driven Israel’s government to the right. Withdrawal from Gaza solved nothing. The problem of the West Bank remains.

Israel is a nation of immigrants, many motivated by idealism but successive waves finding refuge from countries where they were threatened, expelled or unwelcome. The list is long: Nazi Europe, Iran after the Revolution, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, the countries of the former USSR, Argentina, and many more.

I have admired, supported enjoyed and on occasions criticised Israel. Never once did it cross my mind that as member of the Jewish Community in Britain the day might come when my family and I might also actually need Israel.

Until now.

That is the awful reality of the blatant anti-Semitism which is now embedded in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. An anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Israel pro Palestinianism, dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

That is the awful reality of a Labour Party led by a man who is so obsessed with his hatred of Israel and those who support Israel that yesterday he tried for seven hours to prevent the adoption by a National Executive Committee, packed with his own supporters, of the widely accepted International Definition of Anti-Semitism. Why?  Because that definition is incompatible with his anti-Israel obsession. That is the awful reality of a Labour Party which, eventually finding no alternative but to accept the Definition, nevertheless felt compelled to couple it with a ‘get out of jail’ exception permitting “free speech” over “Palestine”.

That is the awful reality of a Labour Parity whose decent so-called moderate MP’s are cowered into silence and acquiescence.

That is the awful reality of an all too possible perfect storm  in which a Conservative Government, bitterly divided among itself, finds that there is no Brexit that it can it can deliver which is acceptable both to Europe and Tory MP’s and which can also command a majority in the House of Commons; this leading inexorably to a general election where the Tories are unelectable and Labour finds itself, almost by default, the majority party and Jeremy Corbyn, unfit to govern as he is, inside No 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister.

That is the awful reality where within Labour hate speech has become “normal”. I live in Haringey where since May no Jewish councillor remains, all, including the well-respected former leader Claire Kober, whom I never even knew was Jewish, having been hounded out of office over their alleged support for Israel.

Where does it stop?

With so called moderate Labour MP’s deselected and replaced by Corbyn supporters, with a post Brexit Britain no longer subject to the constraints on the power of the governments of Member States  of the European Union, with no written constitution, what would there be to stop an illiberal anti-capitalist, Marxist Jeremy Corbyn led Government from imposing a virtual dictatorship of the hard left? The programme is no secret: capital and exchange controls; union legislation repealed to allow untrammelled picketing and strikes; nationalisation of rail, road transport, gas, electricity and other “strategic” industries; private practice removed from the NHS; charitable status removed from non-state schools; and of course, open season on Israel and anyone perceived as connected to Israel – viz almost the entire Jewish Community.

A fanciful scenario, impossible in liberal decent Britain?

This photo is of a bus stop in London today

Blog 75 picture

Am I mad to be asking myself “Is this how it started in the Thirties in Germany?”

I am not easily scared. I have never experienced anti-Semitism in any real sense. I have never been among those in the Jewish Community ready to see anti-Semitism behind every tree. This is not traditional anti-Semitism. This is something much scarier. This is the prospect of living under an obsessive anti-capitalist, Israel (and America) hating government, unfettered by any of the usual constraints, making Britain suddenly a very uncomfortable place to be, especially if one happens to be Jewish and a member of a Community with strong ties to Israel.

The awful reality is that even I am beginning think that I may have reason to be scared; that were it to materialise a Corbyn led Britain may perhaps be a place for the many – but not for Jews.

smo/ 5.09.2018

PS.  Check out Times 2 today (6th September) “I converted to Judaism when I married – and discovered what Anti-Semitism feels like.” by economist Stephen King.

 

 

Blog 74 – QM2 Revisited. Some Books Part 2.

Posted June 25, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I began writing this two days ago, returning to Southampton on Queen Mary 2, the ship I fell in love with just under a year ago crossing to New York. This time a week on board to join the ship’s annual visit to the Norwegian fiords. Same cabin, same table at meals, and even, by an extraordinary coincidence, one of the couples with whom we became friendly and shared a table last time, whom we ran into the first morning.

Although liking boats Susie and I have never been much attracted by cruising. So, we had to persuade ourselves that this was different. A chance to revisit the ship rather than where it was going. It worked. There is something magical about leaving land behind, enjoying a digital detox with little or no connection, everything on hand. In the morning two miles brisk walk, just five laps round the ship’s remarkable promenade  deck plus some time in the well-equipped gym justifying breakfast.

The management and organisation capability required to run something like Queen Mary 2 is extraordinary.  The crew, from the captain down to every waiter, deckhand, security officer and excursion agent operated as one without exception, 24/7, every single person we encountered was focused, courteous, warm and 100% proficient.  Everything worked, all the time.  The logistics involved must be mindblowing.  Health and safety is paramount – but unlike on the mainland, never intrusive.  From start to finish the entire operation is customer centric, focused on perfect delivery.  Cunard does it on ships.  John Lewis does it with stores.  Ivy restaurants now do it with their cafes opening across England.  Why oh why is this the exception rather than the rule?

The weather in Norway was mixed, to put it gently. We especially enjoyed Flam 200 miles inland at the head of the vast Sognefjord where a memorable RIB safari provided some interesting photo ops:

 

 

 

 

Much has happened since I last write about books. . Two of the Board appointments which, with their quarterly board meetings in Israel and New York, had punctuated and regulated my years in ways that I had never thought about, were no more. Visiting our finances, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, having prized myself on living every year within my earned income, I no longer needed to. With one bound I was free. Free of obligations and responsibilities to companies which clearly didn’t need me. Free of needing to earn my keep. Free to start just being instead of doing.

I am reminded of the story of the young investment banker and the older man on the tropical beach. The older man lives there, clearly some sort of beach bum. The young man has just two days between important meetings. Proud of his career prospects the young man is unimpressed by the other’s apparent lack of success. Asked to describe his life, the young man proudly tells of his massive work load, and the promotions, travel and accompanying wealth to which he aspires and which he expects to come as a result. “Then what?” asks the beach bum. Unprepared for the question and somewhat taken aback, the young banker has to think. Well, he says after a while, “I guess I’ll go to the beach”.

I had not realised that Being, as opposed to Doing, was such fun. Nor that it wasn’t that easy. Programmed to constantly do, I am discovering that it takes time and some effort to learn how just to be. We are defined by what we do. One of the first questions when we meet someone new is “what do you do?” We define others by what they do because it tells us so much. We then go on to define ourselves the same way. Wherein at a certain point in life happiness does not lie.

Soon after I left my Olswang law firm, still in my fifties, I was asked by someone to whom I was newly introduced what I did. Having recently retired from the Law and not yet found other occupations, I was mortified by and have never forgotten his response “You look more like a Do than a Did”.

A time for doing. A time for being.

Part of Being being includes more time for reading.

At the end of Blog 70 I promised thoughts on two other books which I had found significant

Thomas L Friedman is an unusually well-connected columnist on the New York Times. In Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in The Age of Accelerations published in late 2016, Friedman sets out to make sense of the increasingly uncertain and disrupted world in which we all find ourselves. He draws together what he describes as three accelerations, particular aspects of our lives where everything seems to be, and actually is, changing at an ever-increasing rate.

The first of these is technology. Many of my readers will be familiar with Moore’s Law, that the speed of computer processing doubles every eighteen months. Thirty years old, Moore’s Law shows no sign of losing momentum. Most  will also be aware of cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and the like, although probably with only a hazy idea of what they are or how they exist.

Recently I heard a presentation on the possible impact of the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and distributed computer networks (Blockchain) not only on financial services but also insurance, law, accountancy and auditing, healthcare, warfare and indeed almost all activities hitherto regarded as within the exclusive capability of human beings. If we think that we have understood the impact of digital technology, it is likely that we “ain’t seen nothing yet”.

Secondly Friedman identifies the acceleration of the market place as no less disruptive to our sense of place and who we are and where we belong.

Globalisation, the death of distance, are familiar phrases. Less well understood is the effect of markets opening as a result of technology. The impact of five hundred million middle class Chinese, nearly twice the size of the entire population of the United States, and three hundred million middle class Indians, dwarfs anything we can imagine. No wonder millions of those excluded and held captive in vile and corrupt North African and middle eastern societies seek to escape to the world they see so tantalisingly close.

Lastly, Friedman looks at the planet, the massive effect of mass affluence and, perhaps most enlightening of all, how we can learn from Mother Nature.

Refering to Charles Darwin, often quoted, apparently wrongly but it doesn’t matter, as saying that it is not the strongest species that survives but the most adaptable, Friedman cites part of a speech reportedly delivered by a Louisiana State University business professor, Leon C. Megginson, at the Convention of the South Western Social Science Association in 1963

“Yes, change is the basic law of  nature.  But the changes wrought by the passage of time affect individuals and institutions in different ways.  According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the intellectual of the species that survives;  it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.  Applying this theoretical concept to us as individuals, we can state that the civilisation that is able to survive is the one that is able to adapt to the changing physical, social, political, moral and spiritual environment in which it finds itself”

To continue, I cannot do better than Friedman himself:

” In the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, we went through a major technological inflection point – connectivity became fast, free, easy for you, and ubiquitous, while complexity became fast, free, easy for you, and invisible.  This has unleashed flows of energy that, in combination with climate change, have…reshaped the workplace and geo politics and prompted us to re imagine how we approach both.  But that re imagining cannot succeed in isolation.  It also requires us to re imagine our domestic politics – both in order to deliver the kinds of specific policy fixes that are needed ….;  also more generally to create a society with a kind of resilience we ‘ll need to thrive when the market, mother nature and Moore’s Law are all accelerating.  This is going to require some very different approaches to politics generally, and that political re alignment appears to already be underway”

Friedman notes that since 2007, citizens in America and so many other industrial democracies felt that they were being hurtled along into the future so much faster – their workplaces were rapidly changing under their feet, social mores were rapidly changing around their ears, and globalisation was throwing so many new people and ideas into their faces – but governance in places such as Washington and Brussels were either bogged down in bureaucracy or gridlocked…..It became apparent that neither the Centre Left nor the Centre Right in America or Europe had the self confidence required for the level of radical thinking and political innovating demanded by the age of accelerations.  In the words of veteran diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, former Chief Aide to Austria’s Centre Left Chancellor Bruno Kreisky “social democracy was always driven by ideas.  But the ideas have gone missing”.

This vacuum could not be happening at a worse time  – at a time when we are in effect experiencing three “climate changes” at once:

A change in the climate of technology, in the climate of globalisation and in the actual climate and environment.

If ever there was a time when the major industrial democracies needed to pause and re think and re imagine politics anew it is now  – says Friedman as he sets out with a blank sheet of paper to ask,  not what it means to be a “Conservative” or a “Liberal” today (and frankly who cares?) but rather how we maximise the resilience and self propulsion of every citizen and community in our society – their ability to both absorb shocks and keep progressing in this age of accelerations.  Seeking a different approach to politics, yielding a political agenda unlike anything offer from conventional politics, Friedman looks to Mother Nature as mentor.  Mother Nature who has survived the worst of times and thrived in the best of them for nearly four billion years by learning to absorb endless shocks, climate changes, surprises and even a asteroid or two.

Now read on. You won’t be disappointed.

Whilst researching Friedman in that most attractive Kalk Bay Bookshop I came upon Being Mortal by physician and Harvard medical professor Atul Gawande. A book about death was not the obvious light reading on holiday. Surprisingly perhaps, I found it uplifting. Indeed I believe that it is a  “must read” for all families. Drawing on real life stories Gawande writes of how, since the invention of antibiotics, people In developed nations have more or less stopped dying of natural causes. Increasingly complex and intricate surgery, possible only because of the availability of antibiotics to suppress infection, has become commonplace. Pneumonia, once the old man’s friend, is now seldom fatal. Everywhere life expectancy has soared.

Gawande writes of the vast industry that has grown up around advances in medicine, that is all about , but only about, prolonging life. At all costs. And, as Gawande points out, the costs are very great. Not just in money – where depending on the country an astonishing 80 to 90 % of total health expenditure is incurred during the last 18 months of life. Nor just in the cost of social care, currently bankrupting local government in the UK, required to look after the ever-increasing number of elderly people kept alive by medical intervention who are longer able to look after themselves. But above all the social and human cost of denying ever more of us a timely natural and dignified end to life’s mysterious journey.

Still on the topic of sleep, though not of  the eternal variety, I just finished Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, originally British, but now yet another Harvard medic. He writes as a scientist about sleep. Sleep in humans and sleep in animals. How sleeping affect everything we do. Why “beauty sleep” really is just that. How “let me sleep on it” works. Why teenagers really do need to sleep late. Even how sleeplessness kills. It is fascinating, a great read – and a good fit with my current project, Learning to Be.

Of course, Being is not about not doing anything. Slowly I am learning that it is about having time to have time, about doing what feels worthwhile rather than what one feels one should and sometimes being ready just not to do at all.  It’s about keeping fit. Its about relationships and having fun. It’s about the fact that where opportunities arise to do, to make a difference, that’s great. But as part of life and no longer as life itself.

Another part of Being for me is this Blog. When I have been more than usually indolent and not written-for a while people start asking when they will see the next one. And with Israel somehow always being in the news, other questions like, how much time am I spending in Israel and what do I see happening there?

It’s ironic. In April 2015 when I returned to London everything here looked so good. London – outward looking, welcoming. Culturally, financially and economically arguably the centre of the world. Whilst Israel, for all its many strengths, politically isolated, divided within, beset by powerful enemies without and no solution in sight. How things have changed.

I find Brexit Britain such an embarrassment I can barely bring myself to write anything at all. Britain now a nation without any effective Government, without direction, inexorably sleep walking “back to the Seventies”; snation that is now inward looking, xenophobic, underinvested, falling behind economically and militarily; public services fraying, even the roads pot holed.  Can this really be happening I ask myself to the Britain of  which I was s o recently proud, knowing that alas it is. Is there any chance that the people will wake up to the awful reality before it’s too late? I fear not.

On the day of Prince William’s visit to Israel,  the comparison with Israel could not be greater.  By dint of what can only be extraordinary statecraft, somehow in the midst of change Israel has succeeded in building relationships with Russia, China, India and sotto voce, the surrounding Sunni  Arab states whilst at the same time embracing and being embraced by the Trump administration in Washington.  No mean feat.  Astonishly it is Iran that now looks isolated.  No less surprisingly,  Israel’s much criticised political system has delivered a strong government which under the equally  criticised leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, has delivered a government which, whilst it may be liked, is universally respected by friend and foe alike.

In the face of perils and challenges which would have defeated most others, a tiny Israel, built on sand, has turned itself into a technology superpower with the financial, political and military strength to project a “Don’t Mess with Us” policy which, at least so far, has kept the peace.  Pleasant?  Not always.  But in the world which Thomas Friedman describes, a society that is so demonstrably able to adapt to changing the circumstances is no bad place to be.

 

smo/25/06/2018

Blog 73 – my Israel affair

Posted May 15, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

 

I began writing this returning to London from Tel Aviv on Monday. My next blog was supposed to be Part 2 of “Blog 72 Some Books Part 1”. I will come back  to this. But driving to Ben Gurion Airport  from the North on Monday morning, I realised that I had to write something different. About how the twelve or so  days  that Susie and  I have spent here, at our Moshav Almagor home (Susie is there for another day) have reconnected me to Israel. Of how, as some of my readers may have gleaned,  having come to feel somewhat “Israel’ed  and Almagor’ed out”, I feel my love affair with both rekindled. Not of course uncritically. That’s not me. But experiencing a  renewed recognition of the strong bond which connects with so much here, accompanied by a pervading sense of wonderment  that it has all happened in my lifetime; that in some small way I have been able to  be part of it – and still am!

I had  thought to begin  writing this in the departure lounge. My previous visit, ever the blasé traveller, I so nearly nearly missed  my flight. It had closed when I arrived. Only the most energetic advocacy, perhaps a throw back to my law practice days,  and the fact that I had checked in on line, persuaded the sole remaining and rather unsmiling lady at the check in counter to let me make a run for it to the departure gate. This time I was taking no chances. Having arrived ridiculously early, nursing a coffee, I was just  settling down to write when I heard the familiar Tel Aviv airport greeting “Hello Simon”. Friends  from London whom I had not seen in a while,  much chat – and suddenly it was time to board.

Tel Aviv airport is remarkable in many ways. Perhaps the most security challenged airport in the world, at least for the regular traveller it can be one of the smoothest to go through. Less than twenty minutes from arrival to departure lounge. Made possible by a combination of effective use of technology, the widespread use of profiling, considered  “politically incorrect” in Britain, but allowing resources to be focused where needed rather than on mindless physical screening, and the deployment of  large numbers of well  trained highly motivated and mainly  young security personnel. Also an airport  where I don’t think I have ever  taken a flight without meeting at least one person I know.

I digress.

Susie and I have been members of Moshav Almagor  since 1995, several years before the construction of our house. Then and since we are the only “ non- Israeli” family. A full decade older than most of the  mainly  neighbours who have become our friends, somehow we, and now our children and grandchildren, have been welcomed and accepted as members of the moshav family. So it was that last Friday we found ourselves guests at the wedding of Shir, youngest child of near neighbours and Oren..

Almagor sits above the western or, if you prefer, “Israeli” side of the R Jordan which, prior to the  1967 Six Day War, marked the border with Syria.  The community, with its adjacent winery ,  in which Oren grew up is across the river some 10 miles distant on the Golan Heights. Shir and Oren  went through army service together and are now close to finishing their first degrees at local Tel Hai university college.

The wedding was held in the winery grounds. Beyond informal, the order of events was the opposite of what we are used to. Reception at 3pm followed by meal and then the ceremony itself. I say ceremony rather than “ chuppa”, the traditional canopy of Jewish marriage of a man and a woman “according to the law of Moses” because, although as you can see in the photos, there was a canopy, a sheet held aloft by groomsmen, that was it. No rabbi. No prayers. No cups of wine. No blessings. Just an exchange of promises of love and commitment, many speeches,  the breaking of TWO glasses, one each, v egalitarian, hugs and kisses all round  and that was it.  No Israeli dancing. Some drinks whilst the oldies like us got ourselves ready to leave, then partying into the night. And we loved it.

Photos say more than words.

All homes built in Israel in the last thirty years or so must contain shelters, strong rooms built to withstand rocket attacks. Three days before the wedding, just as we were going to bed, our phone rang. Our housekeeper calling to say that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had issued a warning that missile attacks directed towards the Golan Heights from Iranian bases in Syria were expected and people should be ready to move to their shelters in the event of hearing sirens. Although where we live is across the R Jordan from the Golan Heights, the Jordan is but a trickle and anyway, who could know where a stray rocket may land. So, feeling self-conscious and rather foolish, Susie and I set about making ready our shelter, used mainly as a store, removing accumulated possessions, stocking it with water and chairs to sit on and, as a further precaution, shuttering all the house windows.

Undisturbed, we woke the next morning to a beautiful day, the only sign of anything unusual, the distant buzz of what we learned was an IDF drone, high in the sky, keeping watch over us.

The next night we didn’t bother. It was only when opening my e mail the following morning I found messages “Thinking of you” “Are you ok?” from friends around the globe that I realised that something must have happened. Twenty Iranian missiles had indeed been fired, but thanks to Israel’s remarkable Iron Dome anti-missile defence system, to little or no effect, other than to provide the occasion for the Israel Air Force to degrade Iran’s infrastructure in response.

I think this all gave special resonance to Friday’s wedding, threatened during the week by rockets, which came to typify much of what we find so special in Almagor. Its hard to describe but it has to do with the clear values by which Almagor people and, by extension, so much of the Israel with which we connect, live their lives. Starting with confidence and courage. Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel in the 1970’s when asked what was Israel’s secret (of survival) reputably replied that it was a simple as Aleph Bet (ABC in Hebrew) the two letters standing for Ain Brirar ( “no alternative” in Hebrew). There’s something in that. Israelis just get on with it. Because they must. They also work hard. I don’t know if its in the genes but we notice among our neighbours a prevailing “can do” attitude different from the UK. The younger generation are impressive. Schools are good. After school comes several years of army service, frequently in elite (= tough) combat units or army intelligence (differently demanding). Then,fter army service, they tend to travel the world.. With the result that, as with Shir and Oren, first degree studies do not begin until their late twenties, with ever more necessary higher degrees stretching into their thirties.

Materially the lives of young people are simpler and less luxurious than their counter parts here. Compared to the UK it looks tough. Yet remarkably, after sampling the delights of Tel Aviv or abroad, increasing numbers of the younger generation are returning. Not enough perhaps. But a combination of new roads, a new railway, new housing, new high tech science clusters, increasing education in the Arab communities, especially among women (half the population of northern Israel is Israeli Arabs) is fuelling a virtuous circle of continuous development.

There’s also the pace. Galilee is timeless, the land of the bible ever present. Yet I often feel that time goes by twice as fast as in London. It’s not always comfortable. But we notice how quickly things happen when they do.

As I was in the air returning to London on Monday the Trump family was in Jerusalem opening the American Embassy (apparently I missed seeing Air Force One sitting on the runway) and 60 mainly younger residents of Gaza were dying at the Gaza fence. Not pretty. And hard to relate to life in Almagor which feels a world away.

It isn’t of course. Yet in a way it is.

Israel of the media and the political Israel of Netanyahu feel strangely remote. Far more remote for example than Brexit does to our life in London. How can that be?

I returned on Monday to attend a quarterly meeting of the Advisory Board of a pan European private equity firm on which I have the privilege to serve. Mindful of the day’s news, at dinner all questions to me were about “what was going on?” and “how I felt about things.?”

Surprisingly good actually.

I’ll start with President Trump’s decisions to establish the US Embassy in Jerusalem and pull out of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. I don’t much like President Trump. But more than slightly shockingly, I cannot help wondering if perhaps we liberals who are so dismissive of Trump may be wrong. In a world dominated by increasingly tough leaders who care little for “western” liberal sensibilities,  is it possible that, when faced with an unpalatable choice in the 2016 election, the great American public got it right? After decades of vacillation by US presidents about establishing the US Embassy in Jerusalem, perhaps  Trump is right to stop the pretence that Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital. The Iran deal was supposed to draw Iran into the family of nations so that it no longer had an interest in developing nuclear weapons. It clearly hasn’t worked this way. Yet again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that maybe Trump is right to face the facts, to have the guts to say that Iran can’t have it both ways.

Strange times.

I don’t like to see Guzan’s getting shot either. But clearly Hamas does. Hamas’ raison d’etre is quite simply the destruction of Israel. Having failed in this mission with tunnels and rockets, mass demonstrations against Israel’s 70th anniversary, designed to breach the border fence and pour into Israeli villages, are a weapon of last resort. Close engagement by Israeli forces risks Israeli soldiers being kidnapped, a Hamas speciality. Live fire, where possible aimed at legs, from protected positions has proved effective in holding back the massed protesters-  but also, alas, effective in generating the damaging headlines and media criticism of Israel that Hamas seeks.

Pondering this morning what else Israel can do, I came upon an article by David Aronovitch in today’s Times asking much the same question. Its worth a look.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/making-war-is-easier-than-making-peace-78pjdmg7f?shareToken=f87fa022c26114d49def8e477d1fb31a

In the meantime Almagor, like most of Israel gets on with life. Sooner or later something in the Palestinian impasse has to give. Maybe it needs a local Trump.

smo 17/05/18

 

Blog 72 – Some Books, Part 1

Posted March 19, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Kalk Bay

Whilst in Cape Town at the start of the year I had the luxury of reading. Reading real books which extravagantly I had packed and brought with me from London. And other books that I came upon in a delightful book shop on the main street of Kalk Bay, a tiny some time fishing port now much visited by tourists and locals from Cape Town seeking a pleasant day out, along the coast from Simons Town where we stay, One of those few remaining independent book shops where the staff really know the stock and are happy for customers to browse all morning in the welcoming comfy sofas provided just for that purpose. A world apart from the busy street outside.

Books from an eclectic birthday list. And books that I didn’t know of at all until I found them in Kalk Bay Books.

Where to start?

JG Ballard has long intrigued me. At the beginning of my legal career, whilst still a trainee,  my very first client was a remarkable lady by the name of Hazel Adair. Hazel had made her name, and a modest amount of money, as the creator of Cross Roads, the UK’s first daily television soap which, though regularly panned by the critics, ran on ITV for 24 years,  in the 70’s garnering audiences of a now incredible 20 million daily viewers.

Later, sitting in the offices of Woman’s Own waiting to deliver a feature, she had had the idea for Compact (1962-65), a serial based in the world of magazine publishing, which ran on BBC with the first regular black character in a British programme.

I don’t remember how we first met.  Hazel was as an immensely creative woman, full of ideas and energy, (Whilst producing Cross Roads she had also found time to run the Writers Guild of Great Britain)  larger than life, with a complicated  private life and what seemed to me then to be huge numbers of children, one of whom, the journalist Colin McKenzie, tracked down Great Train Robber Ronald Biggs to where he had created a new life in Brazil. I don’t know what Hazel saw in me. Whatever it was, somehow we became good friends. She wanted to go into film production and entrusted me with the formation of her new production company Pyramid Films.

Which is how I became familiar with JG Ballard. His work wasn’t then well known. His novels were distinctive and uncomfortable reading. So much so as to have given rise to the adjective “Ballardian“, defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments” . Difficult – but as it transpired, brilliant film material. In this, as in so much else, Hazel was ahead of her time. She acquired the film rights, and, never one to be daunted, set about creating screen plays based on two of Ballard’s  early novels, The Drought and Concrete Island.

Hazel had an eye for the extraordinary. Far ahead of its time, The Drought tells the chilling story of the world on the brink of extinction, where a global drought, brought on by industrial waste, has left mankind in a life-or-death search for water. Violence erupts and insanity reigns as the human race struggles for survival in a worldwide desert of despair.

Concrete Island is quite different, entirely closed, the story goes like this: 

On a day in April, just after three o’clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland’s car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament in Concrete Island soon turns into horror as Maitland – a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe – realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind, an allegory for his own private catastrophe.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they never made it to the screen. The British film industry was experiencing one of its regular doldrums. Obtaining financing and distribution for such “difficult” subjects was impossible. Our lives moved on. Sadly Hazel and I eventually lost touch. I learned that she died only in 2015 aged 95. Although JG Ballard remained little known, the impact of his early works stayed with me.

Empire of the Sun

It was Empire of the Sun (1984), a semi-autobiographical account of a young British boy’s experiences in Shanghai during Japanese occupation,  described by The Guardian as “the best British novel about the Second World War” that put Ballard on the map. Adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard in 1987,  Stoppard’s screenplay was filmed by Steven Spielberg, to critical acclaim, being nominated for six Oscars[4] and winning three British Academy Awards (for cinematography, music and sound). It starred a then 13-year-old Christian Bale,[5] as well as John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson; it also featured an appearance by a 21-year-old Ben Stiller.

In 1973, the year before Concrete Island, Ballard had written Crash, a story about the strange lure of the auto collision; most motorists will slow down to stare at the scene of a collision, aware of the fragility of our own bodies. The characters of “Crash” carry this awareness a step further. For them a car collision is a sexual turn-on and a jolting life force they come to crave.

Crash came back into my life in the nineties when my by then highly esteemed film producer friend and client Jeremy Thomas co-produced Crash as a film, directed by David Cronenberg. Hugely controversial, it succeeded in being both banned and critically acclaimed all at the same time.

Miracles of Life is Ballard’s story told by himself, written during his final illness shortly before his death in 2009. Of course, Ballard knew how to write. What I found compelling and utterly fascinating was to know the man behind the books. Empire of Sun drew on Ballard’s Shanghai experience and necessarily was partially auto biographical.  I thought that it was a decent novel and with Spielberg’s touch a great film. But for me these had nothing on the actual story of Ballard’s boyhood in Shanghai, before during and after the Japanese occupation, seen through his eyes. I could not put it down. Thanks to Hazel Adair, having found Ballard so young, I was deeply moved to follow the story of Ballard’s own life unfolding in parallel with my own.

At the end of the war, aged 16, Ballard came to England by ship from Shanghai. The year was 1946. After the colour of Shanghai, I was shocked to read Ballard’s first sight and impressions of England.  I am going to quote them verbatim. Later you will see why.

“Winter numbed, England froze.

The Arrawa docked at Southampton, under a cold sky so grey and low that I could hardly believe this was the England I had read and heard about.  Small, putty-faced people moved around, shabbily dressed and with a haunted air.  Looking down from the rail, I noticed that the streets near the docks were lined with what seemed to be black perambulators, some kind of mobile coal scuttle, I assumed, used for bunkering ships.  Later I learned that these were British cars (all made pre-war), a species I had never seen before”

My first impressions of England remained vividly in my mind for years.  They may seem unnecessarily hostile, but they were no different from the impressions that England made on countless American GIs and the Canadian and American students I met at Cambridge.  Even allowing for a long and exhausting war, England seemed derelict, dark and half-ruined.  The Southampton that greeted me as I carried my suitcase down the gangway had been heavily bombed during the war and consisted largely of rubble, with few signs of human settlement.  Large sections of London and greater Birmingham, like the other main cities, had been built in the 19th century , and everything seemed to be crumbling and shabby, unpainted for years, and in many ways resembled a huge demolition site.  Few buildings dated from the 1930s, though I never visited the vast London suburbs that largely survived the war intact.  A steady drizzle fell for most of the time, and the sky was slate-grey with soot lifting over the streets from tens of thousands of chimneys.  Everything was dirty, and the interiors of railways carriages and buses were black with grime.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war.  They behaved like a defeated population.  I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it.  They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future.  Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable.  People moved in a herd-like way, queuing for everything.  Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy.  Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day.  Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire.  Most of the house was icy , and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness.

More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.  The only hope came from Hollywood films and long queues, often four abreast, formed outside the immense Odeons and Gaumonts that has survived the bombing.  The people waiting in the rain for their hour or two of American glamour were docile and resigned.  The impression given by the newsreels we had seen in Shanghai, of confident crowds celebrating VE and VJ Days, wasn’t remotely borne out by the people huddling in the drizzle outside their local cinema, the only recreation apart from the BBC radio programmes, which were dominated by maniacal English comedians (ITMA, totally incomprehensible) or Workers’ Playtime (forced cheerfulness relayed from factories).

It took a long while for this mood to lift, and food rationing went on into the 1950s.  But there was always the indirect rationing of simple unavailability, and the far more dangerous rationing of any kind of  belief in a better life.  The whole nation seemed to be deeply depressed.  Audiences sat in their damp raincoats in smoke-filled cinemas as they watched newsreels that showed the immense pomp of the royal family, the aggressively cheerful crowds at a new holiday camp, and the triumph of some new air-speed or land-speed record, as if Britain led the world in technology.  It is hard to imagine how conditions could have been worse if we had lost the war.

It came home to me very quickly that the England I had been brought up to believe in – A.A.Milne, Just William, Chums annuals – was a complete fantasy.  The English middle class had lost its confidence.  Even the relatively well-off friends of my parents – doctors, lawyers, senior manager – had a very modest standard of living, large but poorly heated homes, and a dull and very meagre diet.  Few of them went abroad, and most of their pre-war privileges, such as domestic servants, and a comfortable lifestyle awarded them by right, were now under threat.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode.  Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed.  To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai.  I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control and not a picturesque social relic.  Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

Most of these I had to learn now for the first time – show respect to one’s elders, never be too keen, take it on the chin, be decent to the junior ranks, defer to tradition, stand up for the national anthem, offer leadership, be modest and so on, all calculated to create a sense of overpowering deference, and certainly not qualities that had made Shanghai great or, for that matter, won the Battle of Britain.   Everything about English middle-class life revolved around codes of behaviour that unconsciously cultivated second-rateness and low expectations.

With its ancestor worship and standing to attention for “God Save the King” England needed to be freed from itself and from the delusions that people in all walks of life clung to about Britain’s place in the world.  Most of the British people  I met genuinely thought that we had won the war singlehandedly, with a little help, often more of a hindrance, from the Americans and Russians.  In fact we had suffered enormous losses, exhausted and impoverished ourselves, and had little more to look forward to than our nostalgia.

Should we have gone to war in 1939, given how ill-prepared we were, and how little we did to help Poland, to whose aide Neville Chamberlain has committed us when he declared war on Germany?  Despite all our efforts, the loss of a great many brave lives and the destruction of our cities, Poland was rapidly overrun by the Germans and became the greatest slaughterhouse in history.  Should Britain and France have waited a few years, until the Russians had broken the back of German military power?  And, most important from my point of view, would the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor if they had known that they faced not only the Americans but the French, British and Dutch armies, navies and air forces?  The sight of the three colonial powers defeated or neutralised by the Germans must have tipped the balance in  Japanese calculations.

In short, did the English pay a fearful price for the system of self-delusions that underpinned almost everything in their lives? The question seemed to leap from the shabby streets and bomb sites when I first came to England, and played a large role in the difficulty I had settling down here.  It fed into my troubled sense of who I was, and encouraged me to think of myself as a lifelong outsider and maverick.  It probably steered me towards becoming a writer devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change.  Change, I felt, was what England needed, and I still feel it.”

© J G Ballard 2008 Extracted from Miracles of Life by JG Ballard published by Harper Collins

Tomalins

Next, another autobiography: Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own.

Why this?

I never knew Claire Tomalin, I had not read her work. Yet from the moment in October 1973, when her husband Nick was killed reporting the Yom Kippur War for the Sunday Times, I had felt an affinity. From a young age I was interested in foreign affairs – I had once thought that I would like to become an Ambassador. I enjoyed Nick Tomalin’s reporting as a foreign correspondent. He was never run of the mill. So, I wasn’t wholly surprised to find the following in Wikipedia:

Tomalin’s articles often began with bombastic statements on their subject matter. The most famous of these is: “The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”.[4]

In November 2005 the journalism trade publication Press Gazette named Tomalin among its top forty ‘journalists of the modern era’.[6]

Nick’s death made a deep impression on me. He was killed when a heat-guided missile from the Syrians hit the car he was driving on the Golan Heights, with an Israeli officer and several other foreign journalists. He was the only casualty. With the war virtually over, his death seemed an outrage.

That memory must have been what drew me to Claire Tomalin’s biography.  Browsing on my comfortable Kalk Bay sofa I turned to the pages, half way though her life, where Nick was killed. This is what I read:

I was 40 in June — it did not feel like a birthday to fuss over. We had a family holiday in Brittany in late August and September, staying at a hotel on a beach. Theresa [the nanny] was with us, we swam every day, played beach games in the sunshine and ate ice cream and quantities of shrimps. Nick sailed his dinghy. Tom was still supposed to wear callipers for a few hours every day and I was told he might soon need an orthopaedic operation on his legs and hips. At home again, we settled into the children’s autumn term.

On Saturday, October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria made a joint surprise attack on Israel. They chose the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, when fasting and attendance at a synagogue are generally observed, to start fighting on two fronts. Reporters and photographers rushed to Israel. The Sunday Times called Nick and asked if he would be willing to go. He told them he would think about it and call them back. Then he came to me and asked me what I felt.

I asked him, “Do you want to go?”

“Yes,” he replied, and I answered, “Well, then, you should go.”

“I wouldn’t go to anywhere dangerous now,” he said, “with four children — but the Israelis know how to look after journalists and I’ll be perfectly safe with them.”

So he prepared to fly out on the Monday. On Sunday evening we had a musical party with his usual wind group. The next morning, Nick must have said goodbye to the girls before they set off for school. Our daughters Josephine and Susanna usually walked over Primrose Hill to South Hampstead School, Emily up Camden Road to Camden School. By chance, Nick’s mother, Beth, was in London and due to come to lunch with us, and during the morning his father rang and offered to drive him to Heathrow, and to take Beth with them. So I saw him off with both his parents, uncharacteristically united. I remember thinking how odd that was, and nice for him, almost making a celebration of the farewell.

Life went on as usual. Nine ordinary days. I took Tom twice to Great Ormond Street Hospital for different check-ups. On other days he went to his nursery group in the mornings and I worked on the proofs of my book, with my papers, file cards, typewriter and books on a side table in the sitting room, near the garden window at the back of the house. Outside, the weather was brilliantly sunny and warm. After lunch either Theresa or I took Tom to the park. The girls played with him when they came home from school, he was bathed and put to bed. He liked to have his toy cars carefully arranged around him in his big cot, and to hear Scott Joplin, so we played the music loudly for him as he settled to sleep. Then we older ones cooked and ate our evening meal together. There was always plenty to talk about.

On Sunday there was a group report from Israel in The Sunday Times to which Nick contributed. On Wednesday, October 17,all three girls took themselves to school, Theresa took Tom in his wheeled cart to nursery, and I settled down to work on my proofs in the sitting room. The telephone rang: it was my piano teacher and friend, sounding not quite like her usual self. She asked me, “Are you worried about Nick being in Israel?”

“No,” I answered cheerily; “he told me there is nothing to worry about.” I can’t remember what else we said: perhaps she told me that her nephew Frank Herrmann, a photographer, was in Israel too, covering the war. She left me wondering why she had rung. As I pondered, another call came from her son Tom, a friend of Nick’s from their school days. He said bluntly that he had heard Nick had been killed. “You must be wrong,” I said. “I’d have heard if anything like that had happened. This is just some garbled message.” I spoke so confidently that he conceded he might be mistaken. All the same, I picked up the telephone to speak to someone at The Sunday Times. It was impossible to get through.

I turned back to my work. More or less as I did so I heard something happening downstairs. In our house, friends usually came in through the lower door into the kitchen/living room. Theresa was down there alone. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, put down my work again and got to my feet to see what was going on. Three men were coming silently and sideways, keeping their backs to the wall, through the half-closed door from the hall into the room, one by one. I knew them all: Harry Evans, the editor of The Sunday Times, and two journalists, Ron Hall and Hunter Davies. As I saw them, before any word was spoken, I knew what had happened. They were the messengers of death. Nick had been killed in Israel. I suppose they told me — a heat-guided missile from the Syrians hit the car he was driving in the Golan Heights, with an Israeli officer and several other foreign journalists. I can’t remember what words they used. But he was the only casualty. He was 41, two weeks from his 42nd birthday.

I had now to telephone Beth, Nick’s mother, and give her the news that the son she loved more than her own life had been killed. I decided I must begin with the words, “I’ve got to tell you something bad,” as a warning, pause for her to take this in, and then say, “Nick has been killed.” It was unspeakably dreadful doing this. Then to explain the few facts I had been given. Next I had to tell his father, Miles, the same words, the same realisation that I was giving the worst information he could ever have. Miles came straight round and met Jo coming in — as a sixth former she was allowed to leave school early on certain days, and this was one. She remembers being pleased to see her grandfather, and then he and I had to tell her that her beloved father was dead. Miles stayed with her while I was driven, by Nick’s colleague Hunter Davies, to South Hampstead, where Susanna was fetched from a class and came running innocently out, pleased with the interruption, then struck down by what I had to tell her.

We drove home, I left her with Jo, then Hunter took me on to the Camden School. It was between classes, or perhaps by now the end of the morning, and the girls were milling about — someone found Emily and told her I was there for her without adding anything further. She started screaming — I have never understood why — and she ran to me, screaming all the way, so that I hugged her and calmed her and told her the terrible news all at once. We went home. Theresa appeared to tell me she had taken Tom to our friends opposite, the artist David Gentleman and his wife, Sue, and would remain there with him for the rest of the day. She added, “I want to tell you now that I’ll stay with you as Tom’s nanny until he is five,” — a promise of the greatest generosity and comfort to me, never to be forgotten, binding herself into the family, although she was engaged to be married. And indeed she was like another daughter to me after this

I had more telephone calls to make: to my mother, to my father and stepmother in France. Nick was loved by all of them, and each time I knew I was delivering a message so painful they would struggle to take it in and find hard to bear. I failed to reach his sister, Stefany, before she heard his death announced on the BBC lunchtime news.It went all round the world: a friend remembers hearing it disbelievingly in Ithaca, New York, on the radio. The death of a journalist is a rare event. Friends arrived at the house: neighbours first, then from further away, shocked and full of kindness.I felt stunned, as though I had been hit on the head myself, and hardly knew how to talk to them, or they to me.

Friends were a comfort, but I needed mostly to be with my children, and with Beth, who soon came. And also alone, to begin to try to take in what had happened. The hours went by. More information came about the circumstances of Nick’s death. Fred Ihrt, the German press photographer who had been with him in the Golan Heights and seen him killed, telephoned me from Hamburg the next day. He told me he had heard Nick cry out “Ich sterbe”, which means “I am dying.” This made things worse, because it meant Nick had been conscious that he was dying, and had no one with him as he died. To die alone is terrible. No one should die alone.

Bravely, our three daughters went back to school. Michael Frayn, who loved Nick and was close to me, too, carried me off to Hyde Park one morning as the warm days continued. As we sat in the sun, I told him that my greatest fear was for the children, for whatever effect Nick’s death would have on them. How could I best help them through this loss? Then he talked to me about losing his own mother when he was 12 — she died with no warning, and suddenly, of heart failure. He had been very close to her. He was not taken to her funeral and nobody talked about her, after his father’s one cry of grief and loss. Reticence of this kind was normal then, seen as a way of protecting children and keeping their spirits up perhaps. He said the world turned grey for him for two years after her death. But he added that he now felt that the loss changed him and made him develop differently, and that he might not have become a writer had she lived. Unprovable of course, but I took comfort from what he said.

At home, we formed a close group, sitting together, reading, talking about Nick and making plans for the future, the girls deciding which universities they favoured — Cambridge for Jo, a mathematician, Su thought of Oxford to read English, Em was most interested in science and not yet ready to decide. They discussed life with Theresa, who was so much ahead of them, already earning her living and engaged to be married to a young photographer we all liked. And we talked about clothes and hair and make-up, and devoted ourselves to Tom and his progress. He was preserved from sorrow by not knowing what had happened, and I remember thinking that we were living through an almost idyllic phase, setting aside our grief while we supported one another.

When the weather changed and turned cool, we put rugs on the floor and sat round our open fire in the sitting room on cushions, cheered by the occasional sputtering from burning coals and the changing light of the flames. That was the winter of power cuts and candlelight that made everything in the house look different. Beth had already offered to come to help in January when Tom was to have an operation. She was always outwardly calm, easy to be with, interesting to talk to. My own mother, overflowing with emotion, told me she felt Nick’s death more keenly than I did. He had charmed her, and she told me that, whereas I might build a new life, she could not.

Blog 72 Claire Tomalin

Tomalin at her home in southwest LondonDWAYNE SENIOR

Before the memorial service, something unexpected happened. John Gross, former literary editor of the New Statesman, told me he was moving on to edit The Times Literary Supplement, and didn’t so much raise the possibility that I might return to a job at the Statesman as command me to take over as literary editor. The editor, Tony Howard, had given his blessing already, and he also insisted that it would be much better for me to have a job than to stay at home. I was taken aback. It seemed far too soon to be thinking of a job. It would mean hours away from home and the children, who had already lost one parent and would be losing a noticeable chunk of my time and attention if I were out of the house every weekday. I asked for a week to consider and consult with my daughters, my mother-in-law and Theresa. They were all in favour of the job. Tom was at nursery school already, and Theresa was there to look after him at home. The girls were in their teens, doing well at school, with good friends and busy lives. Maybe John and Tony were right, and a mother working at a job she enjoyed and earning money might be better for them than one at home. Others advised me strongly against, but those I trusted best told me I should. I thought hard, came to the conclusion they were right and promised the New Statesman I would start work in February.

Nick’s death was horrifying to me.I should have been there to help him at the end. And he should have lived to follow a long and rewarding career in journalism. At the same time, I doubted our marriage would have prospered. However much I missed him — and I did miss him, and mourn for him, and long for him to be with us — I was already distanced from him. I had learnt too well that I could not depend on him. I knew I had to make my own working life, and my own independent emotional life. I grieved. But I also thought, “Now!” What did this “now” mean? That I was released from a contract. That from now on I was in sole charge of my own life, of my four children, each of whom needed me in a different way; and of the house, and of all the daily, weekly, yearly decisions that have to be made. That I was to start again and live as I chose — not only could but must start again, and choose and make my own life. That everything was changed. That I was already standing alone, and not afraid.

© Claire Tomalin 2017. Extracted from A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin, published by Viking Books

That was a second very long extract to include in a blog.

It’s there because it spoke to me on so many levels. The ordinariness of a life that I recognised in N London where we live. Coping with a disabled son. Foreign travel. When our children were young my law practice often took me abroad. Air travel was less safe tthan now. Each time I left, I wondered what would happen if I did not return. We had experienced the sudden death of a neighbour with a young family who left home one morning and collapsed dead in the street on his way to work. We knew families in Israel whose young husbands had been killed. I found Tomalin’s description utterly compelling: concise, vivid, matter of fact, complete, telling of a situation that I had so often feared to imagine. I was hooked.

Claire was now a single parent, her literary career now that of the family’s bread winner. Incredibly brave, she describes from the inside so much of political and literary London which whilst Susie and I wee never directly part of it, was the familiar backdrop to our lives as I developed my own career in the law. She writes movingly in her trademark matter-of-fact prose of books that I read and authors whom I had admired. She writes of the young men who came to work as Tom’s helpers, often disconcerting at first but going on to become as surrogate sons, an experience which Susie and I shared from our own time bringing up our disabled son.

For reasons that many of my readers will understand, mental health has long been of special interest and concern; in particular, how mental illness so often seems to stalk the brightest and the best, creeping up unregonised, with ultimately devastating effect.

Claire Tomalin experiences that too, describing but, as she writes with heart breaking candour, not explaining what happened to her daughter Susanna in 1979 and 1980. How during her first year at Oxford something changed, causing her to turn away from everything she had loved and known and subject herself to darkness and despair – culminating in her taking her own life.

Any of you who got this far may well be asking,?  Why did Tomalin affect me so deeply? And why write about it in my blog?

In an interview with Tomalin by Elizabeth Day in the Telegraph I came upon these words:

But she must acknowledge that she’s endured more than her fair share of tragedy?

“Well,” she says, “I’ve had a life with tragedies in it. Probably many people have tragedies in their lives, but I’ve also had extraordinary good luck, happiness and blessings. I don’t think I’ve had a hard life; I’ve had a mixed life.”

There’s something there for me. People tell me that they see my life as having, if not tragedies, more than my fair share of challenges. I have never seen it that way. Rather, to paraphrase Tomalin, I prefer to say “Most people have challenges in their lives. Sure, I have had many challenges, but I’ve also had and continue to have extraordinary good fortune, happiness and blessings. Who can ask for more?”

But I digress. There are other reasons to write of Tomalin.

That her husband Nick was killed on the Golan Heights just a few kilometres from where our home in Almagor sits overlooking the Sea of Galilee still haunts me.

Whilst I fear that the London that nurtured and supported her throughout, of which she writes so warmly, is threatened by a stridency and ugliness in public life which I never expected to see in England.

What most impresses me in Tomalin’s description of her life is how she just got on with it, never complaining, never seeing her self the victim, no matter what came along, just doing what needed to be done.

Also from the Elizabeth Gray interview, I found this particularly telling:

During the Seventies and Eighties, Tomalin was something of a pioneer: an early proponent of the notion that women could ‘have it all’. Yet she never considered herself in these terms. When I asked if she ever experienced sexism in the workplace, she says no, before adding: “

At the Sunday Times, I did discover I was being paid half of what the male heads of department were being paid.”

That sounds like sexism to me, I say. “Yes. I went to the union and they said ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about that.’ I don’t think the conversation advanced much further.”

A lesser woman might have crumbled. Tomalin survived, and there is not a shred of self-pity in either her manner or writing.

@MeToo

Contrast this with @MeToo, the witch hunt against female harassment and discrimination in the work place and beyond, where trial by allegation is the norm, where the rule is now that men are guilty until proved innocent, which almost never can happen because they have already been judged in the media and compelled to resign. Closely linked, I often feel, to the seemingly unstoppable tyranny of political correctness, where everyone can be a victim, no one may be allowed to be made to feel uncomfortable, “apologies” are demanded for history, free speech is dangerous and therefore wherever possible is to be banned by being labelled racist, sexist, ageist, fascist, or any other “ist”.

What has happened to the self-reliance, determination and absence of self-pity which characterises the life not only of Claire Tomlinson but so many high achieving women of her generation?

And what has happened to the rule of law? It goes without saying that bullying and harassment are unacceptable, socially and legally. But what of the principal, invented in England, that every accused is innocent until proven guilty?

In common law, in the UK as in the USA, there exists the offence of assault, defined as

an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.

The act required for an assault must be overt. Although wordsalone are insufficient, they might create an assault when coupled with some action that indicates the ability to carry out the threat. 

Is this not sufficient to indict any truly serious incidence of harassment? But why use the courts with their cumbersome checks and balances when instant trial by media is so widely available and accepted?

The stridency and ugliness which I see in public life isn’t to be found only in victim mentality and political correctness. I fear that it has now penetrated to the very centre of political life.

Tomlinson’s father Emile first came to London as a boy of fifteen from Savoy in France. My great grandfather and namesake came to England not much older, from Lithuania near to the border with Prussia. Both sired families which became quintessentially English, embodying the values which they would have seen as synonymous with the word; the values which permeate A Life of My Own.

How different from the nation that I see today: a Britain where our ills are all the fault of Europe, where the reasons to remain are not what we can contribute and how we can shape and influence the European Project for the common good, merely the economic costs of leaving; a Britain where immigration is the bogeyman; Britain as victim, looking backwards to a supposedly more glorious and heroic time before we joined “Europe”.

Can it be a coincidence that the films filling British cinemas this winter, “Dunkirk” and “The Darkest Hour”, both look back nostalgically to that time in 1940 when Britain stood alone?

But what was the reality?  I invite you to revisit Miracles of Life. Look again at the Britain which Ballard found when he disembarked The Arrawa. Nothing particularly heroic there.

Multi-cultural Britain today is so far removed from what JG Ballard encountered in 1946 as to be unrecognisable as the same country. However, I well remember the Seventies before we joined the Common Market, forerunner of what is now The European Union. It was horrible.  The Miners Strikes, The Three Day Week, Income Tax at 83% (employment income) and 97% (passive income), worries about The Brain Drain (no wonder those who could leave did), Britain the Sick Man of Europe. A Britain not that far removed from Ballard’s picture.

The American’s have a sound maxim “If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It”.

Is the European Union truly so broken that we are better off alone outside ?

In pursuit of nostalgia for a Britain that never really existed, can it really be sensible to endure years of distraction, uncertainty and economic underperformance?  Years which must make it harder than ever to address the very real political and social ills which gave rise to the vote for Brexit in the first place; ills which in our two party system neither party has even  begun to address; ills that in or out of Europe we carry with us, ills which outside the EU will become ever more apparent; ills which, in an unforgiving world, if not addressed, all too quickly will return us to the Seventies.

It’s not all gloom. The unexpected always happens. Intellectual life here is amazing. Britain has a long history. Though sort term prospects may look rather grim, Britain has always bounced back – and no doubt will again.

I must stop here. I fear this Blog is overly long already.  To come in Part 2, two entirely different books by two American writers “Thank you for Being Late” by William L Friedman, and “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande.

 

smo 20.03.2018

 

 

 

Blog 71 – Peace of Mind

Posted January 29, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

 

What might otherwise have been a return from sunny Cape Town to a cold damp and grey London was uplifted by a call which Susie and I received just before leaving, asking us to host two members of a group of former Israeli soldiers participating in the Peace of Mind programme.  We returned Friday 19th January.  We collected them on the Sunday evening.

Peace of Mind is a remarkable programme, another example of Israeli ingenuity.  Israel’s defence forces are an almost entirely citizen army.  There is compulsory military service, two years for women, three plus years for men, at the age of 18 – and thereafter ongoing service with the reserves, typically two, but sometimes up to four, weeks, a year – up to the age of 45.  Not everyone serves.  There are religious, health and fitness exemptions, for which increasing numbers are eligible.  Arab Israelis are also exempt unless they volunteer (some do).   It is the best who serve in combat units, with special units such as the group which visited us comprising the best of the best. Unlike for instance the British, French and American armies whose forces serve abroad, Israeli soldiers serve often almost literally on the doorstep of their homes.  One moment they are civilians.  Within hours they can find themselves in action.

So perhaps it is not surprising that Israel has been a pioneer in understanding post-traumatic stress.  In severe cases this is clearly recognisable.  What was less understood is the long-term effect on those who carry on their lives seemingly unaffected – but in fact carry previously unrecognised psychological scars.  The group who came last week were not untypical.  Thirty or thirty-one years old, they had done their national service ten years previously, in the course of which they fought in the Second Lebanese war.  As is the way in Israel’s citizen army, men and women who form units in their compulsory service stay together when doing their reserves.  They are eligible to take part in Peace of Mind as a unit – or not at all.

For participants, now in their thirties, mostly newly married, some with young families, taking part in Peace of Mind is a considerable commitment.  Not financially. The costs are covered by their host community.  But a significant commitment of common purpose, time away from their family and professional business lives, not only the week in London but sessions to prepare and follow up afterwards.

As the week developed, we all came to realise just how sophisticated the programme was.

Firstly, what we learned from the group.  Israel is a small country; they had remained in touch, seen each other from time to time on reserve duty, but had not actively been together as a group since their regular military service ended.  They worked hard.  Accompanied by two highly experienced psychologists they participated in group sessions from 8 in the morning generally until 4 or 5 in the afternoon.  These were intensive.  As hosts we learned only a little of what went on.  Clearly, however, as the week developed, the impact was enormous.  On the Wednesday evening the group had been given tickets to Arsenal v Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium.  I “volunteered” to go along, the eldest by decades, and by accident or design I was sitting next to the lead psychologist who between goals told me much about the programme.  As the week progresses the group learn that every one of them carries baggage which impacts their lives, often in ways that they had never understood.  By the end of the week the bonding and the uplift of spirit was palpable.

As hosts we had no idea what to expect.  We certainly had not bargained for the fact that almost within minutes the two strangers who had become part of our household became almost as sons.  They left early and came home late.  I had time with them at football, but it was only at the end of the week that my wife Susie and I had significant time with them.  Thursday evening was family time. We invited our daughters, their husbands, all the grandchildren and a couple of next generation neighbours.  Completely relaxed, it was magic and electric all at the same time.  Our six-year-old grandson, having worked out what was going on, quite reasonably asked them “if you are soldiers, where are your guns?”

The following Friday evening, Erev Shabbat, was Community time.  We are not part of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue, but the Rabbi there, Lionel Rosenfeld is married to one of Susie’s cousins. One of their local hosts had dropped out at the last minute. Hence the call to South Africa.  The Friday evening service is always beautiful.  Lionel Rosenfeld started his life as a cantor, has a superb voice and an even more wonderful personality.  He had invited along the Shabbaton Choir.  They also know something about singing. We were treated to a real concert, one in which we also took part!  Afterwards the community gave a dinner in honour of the group and its hosts.  Two hundred and fifty in the Montcalm Hall.  Speeches, singing. much walking around chatting (” Jewish Geography “)

The keynote address at the dinner was given by Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, author of The Strange Death of Europe, 2017. Murray, hardly The Guardian’s pin up boy for his often politically incorrect views, rather brilliantly positioned what Israel’s young soldiers are doing to confront and defend Israel against Iranian backed Hizbollah in the context of Russian and Iranian moves against Western interests in the Middle East and in contra distinction to the hitherto mainly supine attitude of European leaders in the face of Russian moves to destabilise Europe

At the end of the evening, it was one of “our” soldiers, Yotam, who spoke on behalf of the Group. In thanking us, the host community, he told of what happened to the group when, at almost no notice, as the Lebanon war began they had to walk under fire to engage Hezbollah entrenched in the villages immediately facing the border – and what this week had meant to them; that, as he put it, we had opened not only our homes but our hearts. None of us felt that he should have been thanking us. We just felt privileged and thankful for the opportunity.

Blog 71

 We are not allowed to show faces. So, the group did a photo shoot for us of their backs.

Saying goodbye on Sunday was an emotional event.  It was extraordinary how much we had all bonded, soldiers with soldiers, hosts with soldiers, hosts with hosts, hosts with the community, together experiencing contact with a vibrant welcoming inclusive yet still orthodox Judaism which few of the soldiers had experienced or could even imagine. Hosts, every one of us, feeling that we had gained so much more than we had given.  The soldiers understanding that in Israel they are truly not alone but part of a wider family.

Mental health is by no solely an Israeli concern. Long before I knew of Peace of Mind, as a result of reading  Capt. Johnny Mercer’s “We Were Warriors”, I  became interested in how our military (all too often fail to) deal with combat stress.  I was so impressed with Capt. Mercer’s story that I wrote to him out of the blue. His response was kind and encouraging and we have remained in contact. So, glancing through last weekend’s Sunday Times I was rather astonished to find this:

Action man Johnny Mercer is now the MP shooting from the hip on mental health

Having wrestled with his own childhood demons, the Tory MP and former soldier has seen comrades ‘ripped apart’ by PTSD

Johnny Mercer served three tours in Afghanistan before becoming an MP

Blog 71 Jonny Mercer

Part action hero, part lost boy, Mercer, 36, swaggered into politics after three tours of Afghanistan — he was a captain in 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery — with a mission to shake things up. He had never voted before he stood for the Conservatives in Plymouth Moor View and shocked everybody by winning — the polls had put him in third place behind the Labour and Ukip candidates.

His maiden speech in the Commons highlighted that in 2012 more soldiers and veterans had killed themselves than had died on active service. It was published in full in the national newspapers, generating only slightly less excitement than a topless advertisement he had filmed for Dove shower gel that landed him in the pages of The Sun.

He has not yet been made a minister and despite a high profile review highlighting tank-chasing lawyers and bungling by the Iraq historic allegations team, his efforts to seize the defence select committee chairmanship from Julian Lewis failed.

He must now fight the proposed cuts to the Ministry of Defence budget — which would have a devastating effect on his constituency — from the outside.

“I think we’ve achieved phase one of making sure that a security review does not come back and cut the military, but I’ve been saying for a long time: where is the vision in UK defence?” he asks.

His frustration is born of a soldier’s need to get things done, but also a genuine desire to contribute to the national conversation about defence and health.

His new memoir isn’t just about guns and battles but also mental health and masculinity. 

Remarkable timing!

It’s not just the British military who might benefit from programs such as Peace of Mind. The US military are aware of it too. See for instance https://www.stripes.com/news/israeli-program-brings-elite-units-together-to-begin-psychological-healing-1.471162

If you would like to know more about Peace of Mind, the following link is useful

http://traumaweb.org/peace-of-mind/

This is something that I must support!

smo/ 29.01.2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog 70 – 2018: a new year – and a new chapter

Posted January 9, 2018 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Regular readers will know that it’s some time since my last Blog. Five months in fact, the longest time between blogs since I began at the end of 2009. “Why haven’t we heard from you” many of you have asked. The answer is simple: for a reason that until very recently I had not understood, I just didn’t have anything to say.

I never know when I am going to write another blog. It just comes to me, sometimes over time, sometimes spontaneously “out of the blue” when I simply have to sit down and scribble, or whatever is the keyboard equivalent of scribbling. I have been pondering on why this hasn’t happened recently. As the year turns I think that I have an explanation, one which leads naturally into contemplation of the year ahead.

After New York (Blog 69) and a delightful August, some with friends from California whom we met in Bilbao and went on with to Barcelona – a “Viva Espana” experience in every way, and then some sailing and family time at Poole Harbour on the South Coast here in England, in September life became somehow complicated and uncertain. It’s seldom one thing, usually a combination, that produces a darker mood. Looking back, so it was with me. To list but a few:

A recurrence of some health issues affecting my wife Susie, some of my own, mainly minor and none too scary fortunately, but enough to be distracting, consuming of time and energy; the effect of friends experiencing serious issues, some with health, children’s’ marriages awry, other family stuff they could have done without; some changes in my business life not of my making; with Trump, Netanyahu, the increasingly awfulness of the Brexit train wreck and the prospect of Corbyn always in the background. Topics that either I had no wish to write about or which were already done to death in the media and on which I had nothing original to say. Hence my silence.

 

It was during this period that a good friend, who has had more than her fair share of problems, told me how her mother explained to her that the downs of life were as much a part of life as the good parts, that without them we could not appreciate the good things. That stuck. Understanding down periods as being not just a part, but a necessary part, of the wonderous journey that is life has made all the difference.

And so, to the birth of another blog.

I am going to write about something rather personal that I would never have expected to write about. About getting older.

It’s so……… unexpected!

To my younger readers, and increasingly everyone is younger these days, this may seem nonsensical. However, it is so. Born at the end of 1943, I have long enjoyed the conceit of feeling to be the perfect age for the time I was in; a child during the fifties – Elvis and Rock ‘n Roll; a student during the sixties – free grant maintained university education, flower power, Beatles, kibbutz  volunteering and free sex; getting going in the seventies – marriage, ridiculously early law partnership, , affordable house purchase, kids; Mrs Thatcher’s enterprise economy in the eighties and nineties – founding Olswang, moved house, kids in private education, wife’s degrees, university teaching career and her becoming a JP; the two thousands – the millennium bug that wasn’t, retiring from the law, mango farm in Galilee, charity bike rides, board appointments, grandchildren, travel, regular keep fit. I never once felt too old, always multigenerational, always able to keep up.

Then, suddenly, all that changed.

It happened last year. The chairman of the large NASDAQ quoted technology company, on whose board I had served for thirteen years, became concerned that whilst other American companies had age limits for board membership, ours did not. The real issue was board refreshment; the seeming difficulty of asking directors to make way for new blood, with age limits seen as an easy way to bring this about and therefore, in the absence of other mechanisms, increasingly asked for by the all-powerful investment community.

I found myself in an impossible position. I was 73, shortly to be 74.  Age limits were typically around those ages, sometimes younger. All my working life I have championed diversity and the value of youth and experience combined. As chair of the Nominating and Governance Committee, responsible for nominating new directors, I had wanted to set an example by setting a date for my own retirement in a year’s time, having first established a mechanism for regular board refreshment based on diversity and the balancing of youth and experience. Alas, as the one to be caught by the adoption of an age limit, and in the face of the box ticking approach of the US investment community  with an apparent conflict of interest, I felt unable to argue for a different, and I still believe better and more intelligent, approach.

The age limit was adopted. For the first time in my life I was literally too old.

The November board, at which the age limit was adopted, also became my last. Nothing to do but bow to the inevitable and retire with grace. Which to applause and kind words around the board table I duly did.

It only hit me afterwards.   Too old.

I have always seen life as a journey, each stage a chapter in the astonishing book of life.

With my other Israeli board appointment coming to an end in March when I will have completed the statutory three terms maximum, clearly it was time for a new chapter. Even though I was enjoying the one that  I was in and had no thoughts at all about another.

“Within every problem there lies an opportunity” wrote Angus Ogilvy in the sixties in his wonderful “Confessions of an Advertising Man”.

Albeit not without some feelings of melancholy, it was with Ogilvy in mind, and our friend’s mother’s wisdom of valuing the down times as well as the ups, that I sought to approach the year end,

At which point –  another happening.

At the beginning of December, a few days before my 74th birthday, Susie celebrated her 70th .  She did this in such style, with such strength, verve and panache, surrounded with so much love and respect for the way she had fought the battles which she has had to fight, that she was and remains an inspiration to all around her, most of all to me.

So, to the New Year.

Too old?  No way.  But Yes, it was time for a new chapter. A chapter to be shared with Susie for as long as we had one another, of celebrating and appreciating the new stage of life that we had reached.

Sure, it is a time when health wise things happen. But that can be true of any age and needs to be understood and accepted as part of the maturation process, to be pro-actively managed as best one can, grateful for advances in medicine and the ability to pay the increasingly outrageous medical insurance premiums required to fund them.

Also, let’s face it, it’s also a time when with every year life expectancy shortens. There are two ways of looking at this – the cup half empty approach, with fear and anxiety, or the cup half full approach, savouring and appreciating every hour and day, adding a previously unimagined piquancy and flavour to every moment.

Freed from quarterly return journeys to New York And Tel Aviv (which had not seemed that much, but which directly or indirectly impacted most months of the year) all of a sudden our calendar is our own. No longer bounded by obligations of work, school holidays, weddings, the arrival of grandchildren and, for the last decade, overseas boards, our time is now entirely ours to use as we will.

So, it should not come as too much of a surprise that, escaping the January cold of England, I am writing this from Simon’s Town, on the Cape Peninsular just south of Cape Town,

 

Blog 70 photo

View from our balcony

scarborough beach (002)

Nearby Scarborough Beach on the South Atlantic side of the peninsular

It’s our third visit to Magellan’s Passage, a modest but beautifully run mini boutique hotel overlooking False Bay (that’s it in the picture) where, somewhat on the spur of the moment, we arrived on January 2nd for 18 days, with little in our calendar beyond a pile of books to be read, an Apple TV device to be plugged in and a VPN subscription together giving us access to Netflix and BBC iPlayer. We know the area well. We’ve done the tourist sights. The climate is perfect. We have a small car. Nothing we have to do but chill, walk, relax on wonderful almost empty wild beaches, read, watch, sleep, eat fresh fish, catch up with some friends, see a show, explore the coast north of Cape Town that we don’t know, perhaps happen on new acquaintances as is our way.

And so, with this New Year, a new chapter begins.

Too old – not at all. The right age again – you bet! Challenging – a little, for sure. But it’s starting to feel good.

 

smo/ 9.01.2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog 69 QM2 An Interlude

Posted July 27, 2017 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

A few years ago a Susie and I took The Canadian, the iconic restored Art Deco transcontinental Canadian Pacific train running between a Toronto and Vancouver. A three and half day rail journey through endless forest, horizonless  prairie and Rocky Mountains which we could not have enjoyed more, discovering the delight of slow travel and an entire subculture of people who for whatever reason eschew travel by air.
So here we are again, this time mid Atlantic traveling to New York on the no less iconic Queen Mary 2, the only true all weather passenger liner built for and still regularly crossing the North Atlantic. It’s some time since my last blog – and I recognise writing about the joys of an Atlantic crossing is some distance from previous topics.
As I recall, the idea of my first blog happened in 2009 at a lunch overlooking the ancient harbour at Caesarea when I realised that it “doesn’t get any better”. Whilst far removed in time, distance and circumstance from Caesarea,  writing this today whilst listening  to lunchtime big band jazz in the elegant  Corinthia lounge mid ships on Deck 7 of QM2  is another such   “it doesn’t get any better” moment. Strangely there is also a direct connection to that 2009 Caesarea lunch. Taking me to New York are  board meetings next week of the same  company whose now CEO I was lunching with in Caesarea.

Blog 69 photo 1

When I start writing one of these blogs I seldom know why or where it will take me. They just happen, often preceded by a sense that there is something in my head that I don’t know what it is until I begin writing. This time I know. It’s this ship!
I am  so excited by everything on this amazing vessel, boyish enthusiasm running riot, I have to write. Something else; as I sit here enjoying wonderfully exuberant Dixieland jazz I realise the importance of recognising and celebrating the good moments of life. At home the ever present, increasingly intrusive,  media, is so negative, carping, and depressingly full of the world’s woes that it  so easily grounds one down. Free for a week, cocooned in our own world, surrounded by ocean, my spirits soar.
QM2. It’s hard to know where to begin. I can’t recall a time or place where almost  everything exceeds any expectation that I might have had.
First perhaps, it’s so beautiful. Everywhere. Every detail. The artwork, the pictures of historic Cunard ships, the design and texture of the carpets, wall hangings, furniture, the stair ways, the lifts with their Art Deco silvered doors, the design of our stateroom, the comfortable bed and bedding, the elegant dining rooms and their immaculately uniformed staff (freshly laundered crisp white by day, tailored black by night) serving huge numbers but never rushed, never stressed. No wonder we are all ready to dress for dinner, three nights in black tie.

Blog 69 photo 4       blog 69 picture 5

Then there’s the sheer size. 150,000 tons, 350m long, 23 stories high, when launched the largest ocean liner ever, three times bigger than Titanic, 2600 passengers, 1200 crew, three times around Deck 7 a 1.1 mile walk, having its own two tier theatre and separate several hundred  seat auditorium and planetarium, medical team with fully equipped hospital and dispensary, which hopefully we will never see, the superlatives continue. Yet spacious and, with so many facilities,  never crowded.
Above all though, it’s the way everything and everyone works. It’s hard to remember that one is on ship. With almost no sense of motion even in strong winds and choppy seas, QM2 just carves through the water at a steady 22 knots, a perfection of naval architecture and marine engineering.
Add to this superb management and leadership. We briefly met and then heard from the young Captian our second evening, when he welcomed us aboard and introduced his team, from some 60 countries. Four days out I have yet to come across a single crew member who wasn’t professional, delighted to help and great at his or her job. The service, the attention to detail, the constant cleaning, polishing and maintenance is astonishing, beyond anything I have experienced. The logistics are mind blowing; 110 chefs preparing g 15,000 meals a day, in the main Britannia Restaurant  preparing, serving, clearing away, resetting 1100 gourmet three or Four course meals twice an evening.  How is it done, one wonders?

Blog 69 photo 2

The equivalent of a floating small town traversing the world, through all climates and all weathers,  constantly  embarking and disembarking thousands of often elderly passengers from many different counties, economically, safely and efficiently, this is far from trivial. Why, I ask myself, when Cunard, a still British company, can do all this is Britain’s government so bad at managing almost everything? Even it seems it’s own recently launched Queen Elizabeth.
The mix of passengers is surprising. Over a thousand each from the USA and the UK, plus substantial contingents from Canada, Germany, Belgium, France Switzerland and the Far East, mainly “of a certain age” for sure, but also young families repatriating, a large kids club where children seem to disappear for the entire voyage, specially fitted rooms for wheelchair bound passengers, even an area on Deck 13, with the best views, housing kennels for 30 dogs. I have yet to find anyone who isn’t thrilled with the experience.
Many among the passengers of a certain age turn out to be serial Cunard travellers, rewarded with membership of the Cunard World Travel Club, having its own lapel badge, (to look at a cross between the Legion d’Honneur and those  skill badges worn by McDonalds hamburger servers). The two US based couples on our table each traveled over on the same ship, with a week in Europe in between, the third couple, from near my home town in Yorkshire are turning right around when we dock into New York on Friday and returning in the same stateroom.
Crazy? I would have thought so but not anymore. There split between those celebrating long marriages and those celebrating more recent second time arounds seems to be about even,  the sober realisation of OCTIWY (one can’t take it with you) coupled with the  guilty delights of SKIng (spending the kids inheritance) constituting powerful drivers to which Cunard’s clever marketing and superb product evidently and rightly appeal. The experience, at this time of life, truly is as good as it gets.
With Brexit Britain such a train wreck these days, its comforting to experience something as iconically British as QM2 working so well. Albeit that last year’s hugely successful, £90, three week, one million man hours remastering was carried out  – yes, you guessed, in Hamburg.

 

smo 24.07.2017

Blog 68 – London Bridge, Now What Do We Do? – Addendum

Posted June 6, 2017 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I have just been pointed to the following link, which is germaine to this blog:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08sks3s

Scroll straight to 2 hrs 37mins 40secs into the programme.

 

SMO

6/6/2017

Blog 68: London Bridge – Now what do we do?

Posted June 5, 2017 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

On first reading, this blog may well not appeal to some of my more liberal readers.  But perhaps it should. I am fanatical about our freedoms; when they are under attack we must defend them – or we will lose them.

Terrorism only ends when it fails.  The terrorism which we currently face is from an internal enemy seemingly opposed to everything British society holds dear.  It emerges from within Islam. It’s no good pretending that this isn’t true.  There is more than enough published for it to be clear that much of Islam, as it is currently practised and propagated by many, has a fundamentally different view of morality than Western society.

It’s not a question of right and wrong.  We have our view.  They have theirs.  If it stopped there, fine.  It doesn’t.  The more extreme, so called “radicalised” Islamic young, drawing oxygen from abroad, believe that it is right to violently attack the society in which they live.  They hide within religion, which the society that they are attacking respects.  Yet they are at war with that society.  Our society.

Mrs May says that things must change. Whatever her shortcomings at the Home Office she is right now.  There must be change.

We are in a  war.  Not our war.  Their war, the war of the terrorists.   Their war against us.  So how can we best defend ourselves?

Britain is an amazing country.  After each attack, instead of rage and anger there is “we shall not be moved” and a determination that love conquers hate.  These are the values, this is the society, that we hold most dear. These are the values, this is the society that we have to defend.

Government seems clueless.  Years of political correctness seem to have drained any possibility of clear and resolute thinking. Never would I have believed that I would feel safer on the streets of Tel Aviv than in London.

To someone outside the Westminster bubble the following seem just common sense:-

  1. Forget political correctness. Nothing is more offensive than the random murder of our people in the street and public places of entertainment and leisure.
  2. Significantly increase the resources available to the police, security services and, by extension, the armed forces.  They appear to be highly professional and widely respected. Give them all the resources they need. The money has to come from somewhere.  Charity begins at home.  Temporary cuts to the Foreign Aid budget seems a good start. The world can thank Islamic terrorism for the cuts and share our hope that the cuts may be temporary.
  3. As for those three thousand or so prime suspects of whom we hear, revoke their passports and give the security force all the powers that they need.  I don’t know what that will mean, but surely its time the gloves came off. How can it be that among these murderers were individuals known or reported to the security forces for their extremist views – and even in one case it it seems to Channel 4? Mr Corby and his ilk may complain of infringement of “human rights”  – or would have done but for this election. But what of the human rights of those murdered and injured at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge as they were going about their ordinary lawful lives? The first duty of any government is the defence of the realm and its people, not to the “human rights” of those who wage war against us.
  4. Where those who hate and seek to destroy us hide within a religion, the “freedom of religion” which we accord to all religions must be conditional on that religion adhering to the values of our society. Why do we allow Inman’s the sanctuary of their mosques to preach hatred and violence? Those which do should be closed.  Perhaps we also need to require all mosques to maintain CCTV so that what happens inside can be monitored.  Institute covert surveillance.  If truly on the side of British society, that great majority of Muslims who adhere to our values should welcome this, enabling the security services to identify, and then by one means or another neutralise, the extremists within who, in the name of Islam, give it such a bad name.                     Mayor Sadiq Kahn, speaking of this weekend’s attack in London, says that this sickening act has nothing to do with the Islam he knows.  I am sure that’s true. But if it is, there is a lot of what is said and done within and in the name of his religion that he evidently does not recognise. Let British Islam prove that he is right by rooting out those who murder and maim in the name of Islam. Words of condemnation are no longer sufficient. Actions are required: actions to expel, excommunicate and hand over to our security services those who denounce British values, support hatred or preach violence. Among the public this is starting to happen at last. The religious leadership needs to follow suit.
  5. Finally, it is no longer credible to allow the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters of this world to carry without consequences messages encouraging hatred or enabling violence.  We are in a war.  Fighting a war requires extreme measures.

 

smo/06/06/2017

Blog 67: 4 Months and 36 Years

Posted May 4, 2017 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am conscious that, except for Blog 66 India, my blogs these past four months have been notable for their absence. There is an explanation.

As some of my readers may know, since the beginning of January this year my wife Susie has been in Cape Town receiving treatment for a chronic Eating Disorder.  Not wanting to be “home alone” more than necessary, I used the time to travel more extensively than I would have done otherwise, including twice to Cape Town, most recently last weekend to have time together before Susie comes home next week.

 

In this time, I have managed four visits to Israel, India for ten days, Mumbai, Pune and Goa, as mentioned in my last blog, two extended stays in Cape Town, and Florida over Easter and the beginning of Passover. Only once have I spent more than a continuous week in England. British Airways has become my second home –  I discovered that I was flying more than any crew. My world view was this week from Israel, the next from Britain, then from India, back to Britain, next South Africa, now Florida, Britain again,  South Africa, Israel once more.

Everywhere change, flux, uncertainty, fascinating discrepancy, unexpected similarities.

The first thing that struck me was size.

Israel seems so so tiny, so compressed. Its people just have to look out upon the world and make it their own. No wonder there seem to be so many Israelis in so many major cities around the world – that one hears Ivrit almost anywhere one goes. Israel is just too tiny to contain them. To survive as a nation, it simply has to punch above its weight.

Britain isn’t all that much bigger. Historically it seems miraculous that a nation of just a few millions populated, at one time ruled and then gave its language and political and legal systems to half the world. Perhaps Britain, unlike its European neighbours, was also just too small (and its climate too inhospitable) to contain the energy of its people.

India, South Africa, the USA; they are so big, huge geographies with vast distances.

I knew it intellectually. But it wasn’t until my recent travels that I felt it in my gut.

Vast potentials – if capable of being realised. We read in our newspapers of the political problems. Yet day in day out millions upon millions upon millions have become part of one single world. Smart phones and mobile banking everywhere. Satellite dishes in every township and slum. Rudimentary health care increasingly now exists for the masses. Solar power is spreading. Affordable desalination grows ever closer.

I have come to see that in this world size does matter. There will always be exceptions, tiny countries such as Israel or Singapore, nimble, with exceptional peoples and a very particular raison d’etre.  Geographically Britain is and always will be part of Europe. It was the British Empire, with its system of Imperial  (and later Commonwealth) Preference, a system of tariffs  which placed Britain at the centre of a global trading block (originally designed to enrich Britain at the expense of its colonies) which enabled Britain to prosper whilst standing outside Europe. The Empire is long gone. Absent the exceptionalism of an Israel or a Singapore, in an age of huge trading nations and trading blocks how realistic is to go it alone?   Viewed from my travels, not very. Within Europe Britain has prospered mightily.  It’s hard to remember that before joining the Common Market, as it was known, we were the sick man of Europe.  The Single Market was very much Margaret Thatcher’s creation.  Outside the European Customs Union and the Single Market I fear for our future.

Beyond size, I have been fascinated by how people move and look. I have spent much time just watching. Of course, one can’t generalise. Or maybe one can. As I write this, having stopped off for a night in Tel Aviv on my way through, I am just back  from Cape Town,  . So I’ll start there.

Of course there is an underlying crime problem, albeit somewhat improved. But given recent history, and the massive inequality, what I find amazing is how well blacks, whites and coloureds and everyone in between seem to get along. I have been in places, particularly the Caribbean, where I have experienced real “attitude”. Cape Town feels different. I was there for a long holiday weekend, Freedom Day on Thursday, May Day on the following Monday and not too much work in between. The weather was hot, it was supposed to be winter but wasn’t. We were in Simons Town, the former Royal Navy base which guarded the South Atlantic. Also the site of an infamous population resettlement under the Group Areas Act in which the coloured and blacks who had lived  and worked there for generations, mainly in or around the naval base, were expelled. The beaches were packed, black, coloured, white, in betweens, all at play, families mainly within their own racial groups but the young making music and jumping off the rocks all mixed up. Everywhere, in shops, parking minders, petrol attendants, nurses and hospital staff, restaurant waiters, I was constantly surprised how smiling people were. Superficial tourist you may say. But often I was in no hurry and had time to chat, of families and where people lived, often in the townships that we liberals, knowing nothing, so decry. How come, I ask myself, that people with so so much less than they would have in Britain feel good and act kindly, whilst in Britain with so much they are the down at mouth  “just about managing” of  whom Mrs May loves to speak?

India even more so. I am in the midst of reading “Shantaram”, by Gregory David Roberts, a most extraordinary book given to me by my daughter Sasha. What’s it about? I asked her. Life and everything there is in life, she replied mysteriously. It’s set in Bombay, a kind of Slum Dog Millionaire in reverse, the story of an Australian fugitive from prison who finds his way to live in a Bombay slum, possibly even the very one I pictured in Blog 66.

 

blog-66-picture-2

I am only part way through but there is so much that speaks to me.  Roberts writes of the peculiar Indian waggle of the head, which most westerners could never learn but he did, of the smiling, of the chaotic but generally non-fatal road traffic and, pertinently here, of the huge numbers of people from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds who somehow live in harmony.

His characters are drawn from this kaleidoscope

A couple of quotes:

“‘India is about six times the size of France,’ he went on, as the glass of alcohol and a bowl of curried snacks arrived at our table. ‘But it has almost twenty times the population. Twenty times! Believe me, if there were a billion Frenchmen living in such a crowded space, there would be rivers of blood. Rivers of blood! And, as everyone knows, we French are the most civilised people in Europe. Indeed, in the whole world. No, no, without love, India would be impossible.’”
“‘‘THE WORLD IS RUN by one million evil men, ten million stupid men, and a hundred million cowards,’ Abdul Ghani pronounced in his best Oxford English accent, licking the sweet honey cake from his short, thick fingers. ‘The evil men are the power—the rich men, and the politicians, and the fanatics of religion—whose decisions rule the world, and set it on its course of greed and destruction. 

There are only one million of them, the truly evil men, in the whole world. The very rich and the very powerful, whose decisions really count—they only number one million. The stupid men, who number ten million, are the soldiers and policemen who enforce the rule of the evil men. They are the standing armies of twelve key countries, and the police forces of those and twenty more. In total, there are only ten million of them with any real power or consequence. They are often brave, I’m sure, but they are stupid, too, because they give their lives for governments and causes that use their flesh and blood as mere chess pieces. Those governments always betray them or let them down or abandon them, in the long run. Nations neglect no men more shamefully than the heroes of their wars.’”

At the end of my travels in India the tour company which had organised my stay in Goa had arranged for me to be met at Mumbai’s (huge) international airport and guided through from domestic arrivals to where my BA flight to London would depart.The distances  were great. We had time to chat. My guide was a noticeably well  dressed (pressed trousers, crisp ironed shirt, polished shoes) and well spoken young man who took pride in his work – he had studied tourism and this was his first job.  He told me with some pride of his two young children, for whom  he was able to afford simple private education and also medical insurance. His working hours were mainly mornings and evenings when flights came and went. “What do you do in between?” I asked,  “Can you get home for lunch?”  “Sometimes”, he replied, “sometimes I just go to a friend’s”. “Where do you live?” “In a slum”. I was taken aback.  He quickly put me at my ease, explaining that it was cheap, if you lived in a slum the price of kerosene was subsidised, to live in an apartment would cost ten times what he paid for his slum, and then he wouldn’t have been able to afford education or health care for his family. All this said happily with the inevitable smiles. I felt very humble.

I am starting to feel that we in the prosperous West have got our values very wrong.

Much love and smiling then in India. But how much in America?

Florida. Almost the only part of the USA and Canada that I had never been to. It’s hard to put impression into words, particularly as I took our learning disabled son to join a family holiday where we had such a good time. Trump land. We were staying just a little down the coast from where Mr Trump has his Mar a Lago Resort. The material wealth there is extraordinary. Huge portions of amazing food – just too much to eat. Every luxury car in the world seemingly on every corner. Enormous hotels, with everything to excess. The most beautifully maintained golf courses, with electric golf carts for all, an infinite number of immaculate perfectly raked clay tennis courts, with resident coaches. A vast consumption of resources. All, I am a little ashamed to say, HUGELY ENJOYABLE.

I visited Dicks Sporting Goods, an astonishing sports equipment store, selling for ridiculously low prices every type of gear one might ever imagine, including an array of handguns and fearsome looking assault rifles. Troubling, since only the fortnight before in India the big news was of a young Indian high tech engineer, working in Texas for an American multinational, being gunned down in full view in a roadside cafe for “being an immigrant”, apparently to little local consternation, the victim of an assault rifle similar to those on sale at Dick’s.

It seems to me that ultimately what defines successful nations is their value systems. India, South Africa post Mandela (for as long as his legacy survives), Singapore, Israel all have strong identities with clear national values. From its Declaration of Independence the USA was the embodiment of a value system, albeit now alas somewhat tarnished.  The European Project ,which has kept the peace and brought prosperity and security that was unimaginable in the aftermath of World War ll, was and still is also first and foremost a value system, albeit fraying around the edges under the pressures of unrestrained immigration. In days of the British Empire, the no nonsense values of Pax Britannia were well understood and appreciated.

Returning to a  Brexit Britain no longer to be part of the European Project, I find it hard to envisage what will be  Britain’s value system or where it will stand in the world.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Viewed from afar, it feels like Mrs May is seeking a mandate to fix a Britain that wasn’t really broke – but may well be by the time she has finished with it.

Not just the end of an era for Britain.

Whilst I was in Cape Town, 36 years of OLSWANG, the law firm that I had created and led for its first 21 years, came to an end. And end by way of merger into a multinational legal behemoth. An honourable end. But nevertheless an end.

I hadn’t been thinking about the significance of the date at all until the e mails started arriving. You must be feeling sad, they said. Strangely I wasn’t. Or thought that I wasn’t. I shared the e mails with my family.  It was my daughter Sasha who correctly surmised that I must have done my grieving long ago, in 2002 when I formally retired. She was right. It was then that for me OLSWANG finished. But not for my daughters. Nor for the many wonderful members of the firm who stayed on until close of business on Friday evening 29th April.

Among the guiding principles of the firm that I set out to create was that “the firm should exist for the benefit of all the people who worked there” and that “every job was important”. Until last Friday I don’t think that I had ever quite realised the impact my firm had on people’s lives, the lives of my daughters included.

The e mails speak for themselves. By way of epitaph, and of course with the consent of their authors, I trust that in reproducing some extracts I may be permitted one final indulgence:

From Simon Morgan, Partner

“Alla Prossima Volta…

I love this Italian salutation, Simon, which is used on departure. It means “until we meet again” or “to the next time”, and expresses so much more than “goodbye”.

Our email systems go down at 5.30 pm and, thereafter, I will not be able to send an email from the Olswang domain. I will receive emails through it (on Tuesday when the networks go live again) but no email I send will be the same.  I wanted to send once last email to you from this account and look forward to talking about CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang (!) with you in due course.

Olswang has been a wonderful firm. I have great hopes for its reincarnation.

 

 

From Mark Farley, General Office Manager.

“Farewell Olswangers

Never ever thought I would have to send a leaving e mail, to be honest I thought I would either get carried out in a box having died for the cause or simply retired ( not that I’m old)

Seems almost impossible to think that a brand that I have been so passionate about the past 22 years will just be a distant blur this time next year. THAT’S THE REAL SHAME.

Firstly to my team –  WOW what a bunch of guys, many have spent their working life dedicating it to the brand Olswang they have always given 100%, The guys that are NOT going over really are the best of breed and the new firm will be missing out on a wealth of knowledge, experience, expertise and talent.

I am honestly going to miss the bond and unity that we have, which in my view is lacking in so many legal print room’s (cut these guys and they bleed olswang, even now, they all still holding their head’s high and acting professional as they always have) it’s been a real honour knowing these guys and leading them in a total soft service support role for the firm.

… now I’m  starting to  sound old)

I think I could write a manuscript on this firm, in 22 years these eyes have absorbed a whole lot, the mind has taken on  things that I simply can’t forget no matter how I try, BUT OLSWANG has been my life. ( since starting here I have been married, had two children, both now grown up, divorced and now going to be a grandparent in august, so as you can see life events)

Going to miss a lot of people far too many to mention individually…. 

Wishing each of you, all the success in life, remember treat others as you would expect to be treated.

 

Mark Farley @ Olswang – it’s been a hell of a ride x”

 

 

 

From Kim Nicholson, former Partner

“The Door Closes

As Olswang comes to a close today I have to say I feel rather sad, and thought you must be too. So many committed people there now don’t have jobs- I wish I could help them. However, they learnt well under your leadership and so they are in a good position to start their  next chapter.

You enabled a generation of us to work hard, learn well, have fun and experience a different work environment and work family that many do not experience all their life. We were privileged and lucky.

I hope you feel very proud of what you created and the fun and opportunity you allowed others of us to experience. Thank you for that Simon.

With fond and happy memories.”

 

From Sasha Olswang

“Re: The Door Closes

What a beautiful email from Kim.

Well done Dad. You created more than just a law firm: it was a concept then a family and then a way of life for so many. 

As u always said, Dad – and that amazing letter from Mark just proved it – the General Office is key to it all and u could not have had a more dedicated and devoted manager and team. 

Our lives would not have been the same without Olswang and I am sad that that strong and highly symbolic logo will be seen no more.

But as you wrote, nothing lasts for ever and even though the firm has gone the founder, thank goodness, is still around. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see what you will do next!!!! “

 

 

 

smo 2-3/05/2017

 

Blog 66 – India

Posted February 28, 2017 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am writing this in the Domestic Departures Lounge at Pune Airport, awaiting a flight to a Goa.

It’s the end of a two day, stay in Pune, visiting an Indian facility belonging to a technology company that I am connected with.

I flew in via Mumbai, with a two night layover at the Taj Palace Hotel, famed for its illustrious visitors from around the world: US Presidents Obama and Clinton (but not yet Trump), The Queen and  Princes Charles and William, and Presidents, Prime Ministers and film and rock stars too numerous to name – and less happily for the 2008 terrorist attack which destroyed much of the main building.

The Taj Palace takes up a whole block. Standing opposite The Gateway to India, the rather ugly triumphal arch built by the British Raj,  it’s huge and feels huge. Being there one really feels that one is at the crossroads of the world. Sometimes, albeit luxurious, it feels about as comfortable. People of every age, of every colour, shape and size. Waiting for the elevators – Indian women elegant in saris, an Arab lady hidden in her hijab standing next to German travellers in shorts, tank tops and flip flops, dark children in pushchairs, Japanese businessmen in suits, . Step outside one is immediately, within 50 meters, in the Mumbai of Slum Dog Millionaire, a city of 22 million, over three times  the size of Israel, twice the size of London . The head spins.

blog-66-taj-mahal

Taj Palace Reception

blog-66-picture-2

Mumbai contrasts

Pune, in contrast, is a relief.  Formerly the British hill station known as Poona, in recent times it has grown into a high tech city of 7 million; also a significant Indian Airforce Base shared with a rather attractive newly constructed civilian airport. Cooler, greener, full of trees, spread over a huge area, Pune immediately feels both provincial and welcoming.

The first afternoon, before my work began, I walked out of the hotel to the nearest shopping mall. The traffic seemed chaotic, buses, cars, lorries, vans, huge numbers of black and yellow motorised rickshaw type taxis, vast numbers of motorbikes, scooters and old fashioned mopeds, still some bikes, in every direction, pedestrians somehow mixed among them, an almost total absence of traffic lights, stop signs, a complete absence of police, traffic wardens, cameras  and parking meters. And somehow it all works.

It’s the juxtaposition of everything that everyone who visits India talks about. It’s true. Round the corner from our super modern luxurious Hyatt Regency Hotel, families sleeping in the street, tiny children soliciting money, workshop shacks doubling as homes, then after 500 meters a brand new shopping mall with the world’s brands, Nautica, Gant, Marks & Spencer even.

I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was how comfortable I felt.

I have been fortunate to travel widely, including China, S America, the Caribbean, North and South Africa. Yet never before have I been so conscious of so many people, everywhere, among home I felt so immediately at home. Partly it must be the language. Hindi and countless local languages are the languages of daily life but English is no less an Indian, not a foreign, tongue. Partly the culture; only whilst visiting with non Brits  did I realise how much India has been inextricably part of the British culture which I have known all my life; our intertwined history, until 1947 our sovereigns King (and Queen) Emperor, our literature, food and films. And cricket; invented in England, India has reinvented cricket. It’s HUGE here. Yesterday was Day 1 of the first Test between India and Australia, taking place in Pune and filling television screens everywhere.

Something else. No guns. Masses of uniformed security people, at all hotels, office buildings,  but except at the airport I didn’t see one gun. Not just literally. There’s no sign of ” attitude” either. By any standard people here are poor, earnings are low, social security minimal or absent. But the first reaction of people  here seems to be to smile,  often, especially on parting, with that wiggle of the head that only Indians can do. They seem to mean it too, always ready to help. My abiding impression – lovely people.

A strange thought. Amidst this sea of 1.2 billion brown faces I have been feeling self conscious about being white, sometimes feeling almost out of place. Strange because I have never felt this before. I have been struggling with this. I think the answer lies in peoples’ faces. Disregard the colour and they look like us. Which is not the case in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean or in China.

Being on company business, everywhere we drove, airport to hotel, hotel to office, office to hotel, hotel to dinner and back, we were accompanied by ‘Rashat’ (the nearest I can get to his real name) driving in a separate car behind or in front of us, always smiling, on hand to escort us from car to building and from building to car. Except this morning. Rashat wasn’t there. At the airport, with the help of a local porter, I managed just fine alone. There was short line at check in. Just as it was my turn, one of the army  security detail whom I had passed on arrival hurried up and asked me to accompany him. “You can leave your bags, you will be just a moment”. I guessed what had happened. There at the entrance was Rashat, smiling an embarrassed smile. Somehow he had missed my leaving the hotel. He couldn’t bear the thought that I would think he’d let me down. He’d come to explain what happened and to say goodbye. I wanted to give him a tip. He wouldn’t countenance it. I was very touched.

The only previous time I had been to India was in 1980. I came then with Richard Attenborough to negotiate the co- production Agreement for the film Gandhi with the Government of India, in the guise of the National Film Development Corporation of India.

Stitching the finance together was something of an epic all of itself. The film budget was a then massive $22 million of which the NFDC contributed $10m.  Shooting began on 26 November 1980 and ended on 10 May 1981. Over 300,000 extras were used in the funeral scene.

Gandhi premiered in New Delhi, India on 30 November 1982. Two days later, on 2 December, it had a Royal Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London[30] in the presence of Prince Charles and Princess Diana , which I was thrilled to attend and where one confused American film company executive mistook me for Ben Kinglsley!

So it was extraordinary that at the end of our final working day it had been arranged for us to visit the Aga Kahn’s palace in Pune where, in what would become seen as the lead up to Independence, Gandhi had been held under house arrest by the British. I walked through the rooms where Gandhi had lived and where he had mourned the loss first of his secretary and then his wife. I sat under the mango tree where Gandhi used to sit, walked the  path he walked to where his wife and secretary were cremated and finally stood before the modest urn containing part of his ashes.

blog-66-picture-3

Gandhi’s last resting place

A fitting return.

smo/ 25.02.2017

Blog 65 – “You Want It Darker”

Posted December 1, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Few in my generation were not moved by the death of Leonard Cohen and his remarkable tributes.  Foremost among these must be the video posted from New York by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It truly is a MUST SEE.

 

We live in troubled times.  Seldom do I come across a book which completely changes my perspective on the world, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Sapiens” was such a book.

I read it earlier in the year and was discussing it over lunch with Cobi, my fourteen year old grandson, after we visited the Abstract Expressionism Exhibition at the Royal Academy.  Somehow it all fitted.

In “Sapiens”, Harari explains how Homo Sapiens was just one of a number of different manifestations of the human species.  For two million years these species inhabited the Earth.  Neanderthals in Europe and Western Asia.  Homo  Erectus in East Asia.  Dwarf Indians, Homo Floresiensis, in the small tropical island of Flores and several others.

As Harari describes them “The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves.  Some were  fearsome hunters and others meek plant gatherers.  Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over  continents.  But all of them belonged to the genus homos.  They were all human beings.”

From about 2 million years ago until around ten thousand years ago, he continues,the world was home at one and the same time to all these species.  By ten thousand years ago all but Sapiens had disappeared.  How and why did this occur?  And what was it that enabled Homo Sapiens to move from being just of many animal species on the planet to multiplying and ruling supreme?

Harari points to language.  In particular, the truly “unique feature of human language which is not its ability to transmit information about things that exist.  Rather it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.  As far as we know only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.”

Not only does Harari identify the ability to speak about fictions as the most unique feature of Sapiens’ language, he goes on to explain how fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things but to do so collectively.

“We can weave common myths such as the Biblical Creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, the nationalist myths of modern states.  Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to co-operate flexibly in large numbers.  Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives.  Wolves and chimpanzees co-operate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately.  Sapiens can co-operate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.  That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories”.

Harari traces the significance of Sapiens’ ability to conjure myths and fictions into nation states, corporations and religions of all kinds which underpin the world as we know it.  From there it follows inexorably that given the proliferation of religions it must be Sapiens which invented God and not the other way round.

This is what Cobi and I were discussing.  If you are still reading, by now you may have some sense of why Abstract Expressionism somehow seemed to fit.

Cobi remarked that he found it interesting that whilst his Jewish friends all retained some connection with their religion, this was generally not the case with his non Jewish friends.  Wondering why, against the background of Sapiens, we thought it would be interesting to know what the rabbis in our lives would have to say.

I wrote to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.  Incredibly, he invited Cobi and me to talk to him about it.  I say incredibly, because I already had some inkling of how busy was his writing, speaking, travelling and broadcasting schedule.  We duly presented ourselves at his home last Thursday evening when I experienced one of the most remarkable hours of my life.  After making Cobi very comfortable Rabbi Sacks dived into the heart of the matter, taking us on a journey from Creation to the present day, Abraham, the Pharoah Akhenaten, Ancient Greece, Luther and Calvin, early twentieth century philosophers through to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus themselves.  It was a veritable tour de force, exploring the relationship between man, science and technology and God.  I was in awe.  I hope that Cobi was not too much in shock. If I understood Rabbi Sacks correctly, he felt it was the unique ability of Sapiens, not just to encompass that which was not real but to see himself from outside, to put the “me” alongside the “I”, which he attributed to God.

So where do I come out of all of this?  From time to time I am  asked what do I believe in? Perhaps like many others, I am not sure that I believe in God and if I do, quite what that means.  Equally, I do not NOT believe in God.  Somewhere it feels to me that there must be some higher power, that ultimately love trumps hate, that the Judeo Christian moral code and all that flows from and around it is not an accident.  I also believe in exceptionalism; British exceptionalism, American exceptionalism, Jewish exceptionalism. Of course there are others too – French culture, the Chinese Middle Kingdom to name but two.  However for me the  contribution of Britain, the United States and the tiny Jewish people to the world of today is just too great to be ignored.  Each in their own way Nations under God. I happen to be both British and Jewish – a combination which  as the years pass I come to appreciate more and more.

We are living in uncertain and often troubling times

You want it darker, sings Leonard Cohen in his final words:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Within this darkness, through the cracks, the Judaism of Rabbi Sacks finds chinks of light.

For now I will go with that light.

smo 05.12.2016

Blog 64 -Four Speeches

Posted October 11, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I would like to share with you four speeches  which I found myself thinking about over Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Taken together they particularly resonate.  Surprisingly, for I have never been a fan, two of them are speeches of Binyamin Netanyahu;  one given at the funeral of Shimon Peres and the other last month to the General Assembly of  the United Nations.  The third was given by Barak Obama, also at the funeral of Shimon Peres.  Whilst the fourth was given by former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on September 16th to the European Parliament

Binyamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres were political foes.  When Peres became President I often wondered how he managed all of his meetings with Netanyahu.  Yet it seems that there was there was a personal bond.

“Shimon and I disagreed about many things, but those disagreements never overshadowed our many warm and thoughtful discussions.

Our friendship deepened with each meeting.

Yet we never glossed over our differences of opinion.

In one of our nearly night-long discussions, we addressed a fundamental question: From Israel’s perspective, what is paramount — security or peace?

Shimon enthusiastically replied, “Bibi, peace is the true security. If there will be peace, there will be security.”

And I responded to him, “Shimon, in the Middle East, security is essential for achieving peace and for maintaining it.”

The debate intensified.

We went back and forth for hours, flinging arguments at one another.

He came from the left, I came from the right.

I came from the right, and he came back from the left.

And in the end – like two worn-out prizefighters – we put down our gloves.

I saw in his eyes, and I think he saw in mine, that our principles stemmed from deep-seeded beliefs and a commitment to the cause – ensuring Israel’s future.

My friends, do you know what surprising conclusion I reached with the passage of time?

We were both right.”

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a eulogy at Shimon Peres’s funeral at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)

 

 

If this was unexpected, it was as nothing compared to Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations.  Below is the link:

http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Benjamin-Netanyahu/READ-Full-text-of-Netanyahus-speech-to-UN-General-Assembly-468500

It’s well worth reading but too long to reproduce in full.  So here are some extracts to whet your appetite.

“Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen, What I’m about to say is going to shock you: Israel has a bright future at the UN. Now I know that hearing that from me must surely come as a surprise, because year after year I’ve stood at this very podium and slammed the UN for its obsessive bias against Israel. And the UN deserved every scathing word – for the disgrace of the General Assembly that last year passed 20 resolutions against the democratic State of Israel and a grand total of three resolutions against all the other countries on the planet.

Israel – twenty; rest of the world – three”

“Governments are changing their attitudes towards Israel because they know that Israel can help them protect their peoples, can help them feed them, can help them better their lives. This summer I had an unbelievable opportunity to see this change so vividly during an unforgettable visit to four African countries. This is the first visit to Africa by an Israeli prime minister in decades. Later today, I’ll be meeting with leaders from 17 African countries. We’ll discuss how Israeli technology can help them in their efforts to transform their countries. In Africa, things are changing. In China, India, Russia, Japan, attitudes towards Israel have changed as well. These powerful nations know that, despite Israel’s small size, it can make a big difference in many, many areas that are important to them.

But now I’m going to surprise you even more. You see, the biggest change in attitudes towards Israel is taking place elsewhere. It’s taking place in the Arab world. Our peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan continue to be anchors of stability in the volatile Middle East. But I have to tell you this: For the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. They recognize that Israel is their ally. Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS. Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished delegates from so many lands, I have one message for you today: Lay down your arms. The war against Israel at the UN is over. Perhaps some of you don’t know it yet, but I am confident that one day in the not too distant future you will also get the message from your president or from your prime minister informing you that the war against Israel at the United Nations has ended. Yes, I know, there might be a storm before the calm. I know there is talk about ganging up on Israel at the UN later this year. Given its history of hostility towards Israel, does anyone really believe that Israel will let the UN determine our security and our vital national interests? We will not accept any attempt by the UN to dictate terms to Israel. The road to peace runs through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not through New York. But regardless of what happens in the months ahead, I have total confidence that in the years ahead the revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations will finally penetrate this hall of nations. I have so much confidence, in fact, that I predict that a decade from now an Israeli prime minister will stand right here where I am standing and actually applaud the UN. But I want to ask you: Why do we have to wait a decade? Why keep vilifying Israel? Perhaps because some of you don’t appreciate that the obsessive bias against Israel is not just a problem for my country, it’s a problem for your countries too. Because if the UN spends so much time condemning the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, it has far less time to address war, disease, poverty, climate change and all the other serious problems that plague the planet”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am hopeful about what Israel can accomplish because I’ve seen what Israel has accomplished. In 1948, the year of Israel’s independence, our population was 800,000. Our main export was oranges. People said then we were too small, too weak, too isolated, too demographically outnumbered to survive, let alone thrive. The skeptics were wrong about Israel then; the skeptics are wrong about Israel now.

Israel’s population has grown tenfold, our economy fortyfold. Today our biggest export is technology – Israeli technology, which powers the world’s computers, cellphones, cars and so much more.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The future belongs to those who innovate and this is why the future belongs to countries like Israel. Israel wants to be your partner in seizing that future, so I call on all of you: Cooperate with Israel, embrace Israel, dream with Israel. Dream of the future that we can build together, a future of breathtaking progress, a future of security, prosperity and peace, a future of hope for all humanity, a future where even at the UN, even in this hall, Israel will finally, inevitably, take its rightful place among the nations.”

 

Barack Obama, widely perceived as disappointing and ineffectual as President, is good with words.

US President Barack Obama seen at the state funeral ceremony for former Israeli president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/POOL)

 

 

Standing on Mount Herzl by Peres’ coffin against a backdrop of Israeli flags fluttering in the morning breeze, Obama spoke beautifully.  Too long to reproduce in full, his speech also bears reading:

http://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-of-president-barack-obamas-eulogy-for-shimon-peres/

as the following extracts attest:

“I could not be more honored to be in Jerusalem to say farewell to my friend Shimon Peres, who showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.”

“A free life, in a homeland regained. A secure life, in a nation that can defend itself, by itself. A full life, in friendship with nations who can be counted on as allies, always. A bountiful life, driven by simple pleasures of family and by big dreams. This was Shimon Peres’s life. This is the State of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish people over the last century, and it was made possible by a founding generation that counts Shimon as one of its own”.

“Shimon once said, “The message of the Jewish people to mankind is that faith and moral vision can triumph over all adversity.” For Shimon, that moral vision was rooted in an honest reckoning of the world as it is. Born in the shtetl, he said he felt, “surrounded by a sea of thick and threatening forests.” When his family got the chance to go to Palestine, his beloved grandfather’s parting words were simple: “Shimon, stay a Jew.” Propelled with that faith, he found his home. He found his purpose. He found his life’s work. But he was still a teenager when his grandfather was burned alive by the Nazis in the town where Shimon was born. The synagogue in which he prayed became an inferno. The railroad tracks that had carried him toward the Promised Land also delivered so many of his people to death camps.”

“Of course, we gather here in the knowledge that Shimon never saw his dream of peace fulfilled. The region is going through a chaotic time. Threats are ever present. And yet, he did not stop dreaming, and he did not stop working”

“In many ways, he reminded me of some other giants of the 20th century that I’ve had the honor to meet — men like Nelson Mandela; women like Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth — leaders who have seen so much, whose lives span such momentous epochs, that they find no need to posture or traffic in what’s popular in the moment; people who speak with depth and knowledge, not in sound bites. They find no interest in polls or fads.”

“And like these leaders, Shimon could be true to his convictions even if they cut against the grain of current opinion. He knew, better than the cynic, that if you look out over the arc of history, human beings should be filled not with fear but with hope. I’m sure that’s why he was so excited about technology — because for him, it symbolized the march of human progress. And it’s why he loved so much to talk about young people — because he saw young people unburdened by the prejudices of the past. It’s why he believed in miracles — because in Israel, he saw a miracle come true.”

“As an American, as a Christian, a person partly of African descent, born in Hawaii — a place that could not be further than where Shimon spent his youth — I took great pleasure in my friendship with this older, wiser man. We shared a love of words and books and history. And perhaps, like most politicians, we shared too great a joy in hearing ourselves talk. But beyond that, I think our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine. Because for all of our differences, both of us had lived such unlikely lives. It was so surprising to see the two of us where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel. And I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.

Shimon’s story, the story of Israel, the experience of the Jewish people, I believe it is universal. It’s the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness. And it’s the story of a man who was counted on, and then often counted out, again and again, and who never lost hope.

Shimon Peres reminds us that the State of Israel, like the United States of America, was not built by cynics. We exist because people before us refused to be constrained by the past or the difficulties of the present. And Shimon Peres was never cynical. It is that faith, that optimism, that belief — even when all the evidence is to the contrary — that tomorrow can be better, that makes us not just honor Shimon Peres, but love him.

The last of the founding generation is now gone. Shimon accomplished enough things in his life for a thousand men. But he understood that it is better to live to the very end of his time on Earth with a longing not for the past but for the dreams that have not yet come true — an Israel that is secure in a just and lasting peace with its neighbors. And so now this work is in the hand of Israel’s next generation, in the hands of Israel’s next generation and its friends.”

Obama spoke of the exceptionalism of Israel, a nation state that punches far above it’s weight.  Last week I met a Hong Kong Chinese solicitor who practices in London, utilising his extensive connections in China.  He spoke of the growing ties between China and Israel and of his wish to find time to visit Tel Aviv.  I asked him how many people he thought lived in Israel.  “Well it’s quite small”, he replied “I suppose about 40 million”! (The true number is under 8)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, addressing the European Parliament, spoke of Jewish exceptionalism of a different kind. In his inimitable style he spoke ever so powerfully powerfully about anti Semitism.

“The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.  That is what I want us to understand today” .

Read on, or better still look at the You Tube video of his address:

The Mutating Virus: Understanding Antisemitism

 

At lunch recently with my fourteen year old grandson he mentioned that it was interesting that whilst his Jewish contemporaries at school  seemed to maintain a  connection with Judaism in some form or other, this was not true of his non Jewish, nominally Christian friends who appeared to have retained little if any connection with the Church. We were puzled why this was so.  I found the explanation in these speeches.

 

smo/14.10.16

Blog 63 – Homo Deus (Hard Brexit)

Posted October 11, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I just finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus”, his recently published successor to “Sapiens – a brief history of mankind”. In Chapter 10, The Meaning of Life, he writes of Jorge Luis Borges, a key figure in Spanish language and literature in the 1940s.  Referencing Cervantes’ mythical hero Don Quixote, Borges asks a fundamental question about the human condition; what happens when the yarns spun by our narrating self cause great harm to ourselves or those around us?

All too often we cling to our fantasies for all that they are worth, because these are the only thing giving meaning to the harm. Paradoxically the greater the sacrifices made for an imaginary story the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused.

Harari tells us that in politics this is known as the “Our Boys Didn’t Die in Vain” syndrome.  His graphic example is Italy in 1915 entering the First World War on the side of the Entente powers.  Italy’s declared aim was to “liberate” Trento and Trieste – two Italian territories that the Austro-Hungarian Empire held “unjustly”.  Italian politicians gave fiery speeches in Parliament, vowing historical redress and promising a return to the glories of Ancient Rome.  Hundreds of thousands of Italian recruits went to the Front shouting “for Trento and Trieste!”.  They thought it would be a walkover.

It was anything but.  The Austro – Hungarian Army held a strong defensive line along the Isonzo River.  The Italians hurled themselves against the line in eleven gory battles, gaining a few kilometres at most, and never securing a breakthrough.  In the first battle they lost 15,000 men.  In the second battle they lost 40,000 men.  In the third battle they lost 60,000.  And so it continued for more than two dreadful years until the eleventh engagement, when the Austrians finally counter attacked, and in the Battle of Caporreto soundly defeated the Italians and pushed them back almost to the gates of Venice.  The glorious adventure had become a bloodbath.  By the end of the War, almost 700,000 Italian soldiers were killed and more than a million were wounded.

After losing the first Isozo battle, Italian politicians had two choices.  They could admit their mistake and sign a peace treaty.  Austria – Hungary had no claims against Italy, and would have been delighted to sign a peace treaty because it was busy fighting for survival against the much stronger Russians.  Yet how could the politicians go to the parents, wives and children of 15,000 dead Italian soldiers and tell them: “sorry there has been a mistake.  We hope you don’t take it too hard, but your Giovanni died in vain, and so did your Marco”.  Alternatively they could say “Giovanni and Marco were heroes.  They died so that Trieste would be Italian, and we will make sure they didn’t die on vain.  We will go on fighting until victory is ours!”.  Not surprisingly, the politicians preferred the second option, so they fought a second battle, and lost another 40,000 men.  The politicians again decided it would be best to keep on fighting, because “our boys didn’t die in vain”.

 

 

img_3827

 

A few victims of the Isozo battles

It’s not only the politicians who are to blame.  The masses also kept supporting the war.  And when after the war Italy did not get all the territories it demanded, Italian democracy placed at its head Benito Mussolini and his Fascists, who promised they would gain for Italy a proper compensation for all the sacrifices it had made.  While it’s hard for a politician to tell parents that their son died for no good reason, it is far more difficult for parents to say this to themselves – and it is even harder for the victims. A crippled soldier who lost his legs would rather tell himself “I sacrificed myself for the glory of Italy” than “I lost my legs because I was stupid enough to believe self serving politicians” .  It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.

Harari goes on to describe how priests discovered this principle thousands of years ago.  It underlies numerous religious ceremonies and commandments. If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.  The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced people are.

This comes to mind as in recent days I have watched Theresa May embrace first Brexit and now a hard Brexit, cutting off our universities, stirring up xenophobia, collapsing the Pound, turning her back on prosperity and the modern world and thereby reducing Great Britain to Little England – for what? Seemingly all in pursuit of  a  fable entitled “Take Back Control” in an imaginary world that owes us a living  and where, because “Europe needs us more than we need Europe”, we can make our own rules and so have our cake and eat it.

700,000 dead, a million wounded. £66bn a year cost of a hard Brexit.  I fear for us.

 

smo/ 11.10.2016

 

Blog 62 Queen in Tel Aviv

Posted September 16, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

 

I started writing this is on the plane a couple of days ago, returning to London from ten vibrant days in a warm sunny Israel. Some rather interesting work – it’s time for that after a delightfully indulgent and chilled summer. Also some down time with Susie renewing acquaintance with our home in the North, catching up with neighbours, joined by our son James, swimming, fitting in some reading and, because that is the effect of the peace and quietude of Almagor, sleeping.

How different Israel looks viewed from Brexit Britain. An Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass experience.

Israel. An island of stability with a stable government. One might not like Netanyahu.  I certainly do not. However, as he constantly tells us, there’s no one else, his majority thin on paper remains unchallenged in reality, the economy is strong (Israel is one of five high tech global powers), the currency is stable (in recent years arguably the shekel has been the world’s strongest currency), civil society is strong, the military is strong and again, much as one may not always like it, counter terrorism has been developed into an art form.

Compare with:

Britain of The Great Leap Backwards, with an unelected new prime minister, surrounded by a Cabinet divided into apparently clueless Brexiteers and rudderless Remainers, a weakened military, side lined and frankly now rather irrelevant at the G20, centuries  of stable governance undermined by a perfect storm of a referendum gone wrong, a governing party in the hands of the very right wing Eurosceptics whom David Cameron set out to neutralise, no effective Opposition, Labour having fallen into the hands of the extremist (and anti-Semitic) hard left whom Tony Blair and Gordon Brown thought they had seen off the pitch, the Pound in free fall, economic growth suspended, even the Union with Scotland and Northern Ireland now under threat,

I look around. Where is better. Syria? Other Arab lands? Russia under Putin, military adventurism superficially popular but disguising a collapsing economy going nowhere and a declining population? Turkey under Erdogan? The USA – very likely to elect President Trump? Even Europe itself, with sclerotic economies, weakened by Brexit whatever Mr Junkers may say, beset with seemingly intractable Mediterranean migrant and debt issues?

What a difference one summer makes.

So with all this misery, back to some happy days in Israel.

I have recently been doing some non-exec work with an unusual services start up in Tel Aviv. I am not able to write about its business. However, I can mention one of the surprising attributes of the place  – the presence of a good number of young (everyone is young to me now, but in this case truly young) reasonably religiously observant Brits, the men all wearing kippot. Quickly it became apparent that, not only did they seem to be really nice people, but to a man and woman they were unusually bright, with good degrees from top universities and the kind of resumes which would guarantee them good positions anywhere. They were in Israel because that is where they wanted to live and bring up their families.

Israel prides itself on being part of the economic and cultural global village, and so particularly appreciates it when first rank artists come to perform. The anti-Israel BDS (boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) movement sees this a vulnerability and does its best to stop them, too often with some success. So the imminent arrival of Queen to play in Park Hayarkon, Tel Aviv’s Hyde Park, whilst we were going to be there, was big time.

Also perhaps surprisingly, the religious young Brits that I just mentioned had arranged to go to Queen as an office outing. Little in Israel is quite what it seems. Best of all, generously and despite our age difference, they had invited Susie and me to come along too. We were appreciative and thrilled. So it was that we joined them at their central Tel Aviv office and all together took the train two stops to picnic in the park before the concert.

At the centre of Park Hayarkon there is a natural grass amphitheatre comfortably accommodating an audience of 50,000 sitting or standing in the open air. By the time we finished our picnic the sun was beginning to set, people were streaming in from every direction, the crowd control excellent, multi layered security clearly present but unobtrusive. Time for us to join the throng. Nightfall comes quickly in Israel.  The auditorium was now a magical setting, the trees of the surrounding park floodlit, search lights playing on the cotton wool clouds above, all around the illuminated office and high rise apartment towers of Tel Aviv standing as if sentinels. We knew that we were in for a good time.

Yet, being relative novices at rock concerts, we were unsure of what to expect. Queen without Freddie Mercury? How could that be?  Albeit that we had heard that Adam Lambert was good, realy very good indeed. Whilst at much the same age as us, could Brian May (guitar) and Roger Taylor (drums) still really hack it?

We need not have worried. It was amazing! Nonstop for two hours, all 50,000 of us on our feet, rocking, clapping and singing along. Sound quality, lighting effects, lasers and pyrotechnics were beyond compare. Israelis do that so well.  Of course the band were but tiny figures on the giant stage, but inspired projection onto huge high resolution screens ensured that everyone felt part of it. In one sense a tribute to Freddie Mercury, in another the evening was a celebration of the agelessness  and universality of great songs and talent.

 

showimage

 

 

Acknowledging the venue, Brian May performed a riff on Hava Negila seeming without end, demonstrating to anyone who doubted it that his formidable talent endures. For the crescendo finale, which we were all waiting for, of course came We Will Rock You, 50,000 voices joining in until they could sing no more. The lights dimmed.  A pause. Then unexpected, Queen’s very own rock version of God Save The Queen. A very special delight for our particlar group of  Brits.

However, that is not the end of my story.

I mentioned the impressive crowd control. Now everyone had to leave. I don’t think that I have ever seen a more crowded railway station, nor when eventually we found our way aboard, a more crowded train. Eventually we found ourselves sitting opposite a young man, it turned out he was 17, wearing an official Queen tee shirt.

What had he thought about the evening we asked and, given his youth, how come he was there at all?

In carefully articulated but perfect English he told us that he had been at the concert with a group from his class at school. They had just finished constructing a satellite, about the size of a large football he showed us, which was soon to be on its way to Florida to be launched as part of an international research programme. As well as being part of Queen, Brian May is also a professor of astrophysics. (We had no idea, although apparently it is no secret). So they had written to him asking if whilst he was in Israel would he come and talk to their class. May had replied. There wasn’t time to come to school. Instead would they like to come back stage before the concert, there would be time for a chat, and then to stay on in VIP seating?

 

School kids building a satellite, knowing of Brian May’s other life, then having the presence of mind to invite him to their school. All so every day and matter of fact.

 

Only in Israel.

 

smo/ 15th September 2016

 

 

 

Blog 61 Information Wars

Posted August 16, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Preface.  I originally wrote this on August 1st., didn’t finish,  then holiday intervened. Re reading what I wrote only one thing has changed. Now that Donald Trump truly is the Republican candidate for President, the US media seems to have woken up to the reality that “the Donald” actually could be President. At long last they have to have him in their sights. And he is complaining bitterly. 

This past week Susie and I have been holidaying in Southwest Harbor, Maine, USA. We have returned to a previous haunt of ours, originally found by accident when the delightful looking B&B that we had booked into wasn’t. In Southwest Harbor, and the delightfully simple Claremont Hotel where we are staying, it’s as if time has stood still.  Quoting from the in room hotel welcome booklet:

“In 1884, the year the Claremont opened for business, a ” gentleman from Maine” was running for President in a campaign notable for mudslinging and attention to personalities and not issues. James G. Blaine, long leader of the Republican Party was finally nominated to run for President against Democrat Grover Cleveland. That election took place in a country that, in 1884, was witnessing rapid changes in an era of urbanisation. City populations were doubling and many people were abandoning small farms of the New England countryside. It was this rapidly urbanising America which propelled the first “rusticators” to seek the fresh air, ocean and mountain vistas of Mount Desert Island” (at the tip of which Southwest Harbor is)

True to its tradition of “plain living and high thinking” the Claremont rooms contain no TV’s or even air conditioners; fans suffice for the occasional very warm days. There are perfectly maintained croquet lawns, rowing boats on the dock, a chess board with large chunky pieces laid out in the spacious living room and on the shaded terraces looking out to sea rocking chairs a plenty.

Time to chill, to read a little, to listen to music, to walk, to sail but above all time to have time –  a rare commodity in these days of everything everywhere.

The Claremont has just one television for guests, hidden in a piece of furniture. Usually ignored, it was switched on for Hilary Clinton’s closing acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention which closed last week. We had also seen snippets on previous evenings in New York. So coming upon the history of 1884 in the hotel history it seems that “Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme”

But something has changed; the power of the media.

Goebels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, is generally credited, for want of another word, as being the inventor and master practitioner  of the Big Lie, the understanding that if a lie is big enough and broadcast often and widely enough it will become accepted.

Back to the US election. I confess that until I saw Hilary Clinton speak last Thursday I feared that she was unelectable, The Trump mantra “Crooked Hilary”, the constant chanting at the Republican Convention the previous week “Lock her up”, had had their effect. Worse,I feared that Trump, who had continued to defy every prediction, was all too electable, a fear increased by conversations with many whom Susie and I came across from taxi drivers to serious businessmen which suggested that they were beguiled by Trump’s rhetoric.

Much changed on Thursday night. I realised what a good president Hilary Clinton could make. Good meaning effective. Good meaning good. Good meaning rooted in all that is good about the United States. And how unqualified, unprepared and dangerous was Donald Trump. And yet ….. against Trump’s brilliant use of unconventional media to push his messages of making what is complex apparently simple, of appealing to prejudice and fear, it is far from clear that The Clinton campaign can prevail. The more Trump departs from reality the more enthusiastic is his electorate. The Big Lie works big.

As people here are constantly pointing out, the parallels between Trump and Brexit are many -and rather chilling. Bookies give Trump the same 27% odds of victory as they were giving Leave immediately before the Referendum. Trump: appeal to the white blue collar workers whose incomes have not risen in the post 2009 recovery. Leave: appeal to former Labour voters in the North and Midlands whose incomes have not risen since the poet 2009 recovery.  Trump: Build a wall, Leave: Take back control of our borders. Trump: Protect American jobs, end free trade, Leave, protect British jobs, end free movement. Trump:America first, Leave: Sovereign Britain. Likewise, the absence of any plan. Trump has aspirations but few clear policies. Leave as we now know had no clear idea what Brexit meant in practice, nor how in the real world it could be achieved, probably because Leavers did not really expect to win. (They mostly jumped ship when they did)

Only now is the true meaning of Brexit becoming  apparent: a stalled economy, universities losing grants and academics, loss of the European common patent, investment halted, inflation forecast to rise on the back of a collapsing Pound, no access to the single market without freedom of movement, without full participation in the single market an end to “passporting” and the City as a world centre for financial services which contribute so much of government tax revenues, a reduction in tax revenues at the very time that the government needs the revenue to invest in infrastructure, education  and in work training for the voters left behind, increased government borrowing undoing George Osborne’s work in reducing the deficit.

For what?

The Leave vote reflected a disillusion with the post 2009 recovery, a frustration with London, Labour’s abandonment of the tradition Labour voter, a fear of immigration and the traditional British reserve about ” Europe”. It did not reflect the underlying realities, that immigration had been good for Britain, the influx of young motivated workers a major reason for the buoyancy of Britain’s, that the EU had enabled Europe to navigate the collapse of the Soviet Union, within one generation  peacefully absorbing the previously broken Soviet satellite states into a vibrant community of democratic nations committed to human rights and the respect of minorities – in a continent which for centuries had known only ethnic conflict and war; that with both Eire and N Ireland  within the EU an end to conflict in N Ireland became possible, that exiting the EU against the wishes of Scotland would reignite Scottish calls for independence.

It is instructive to look at how this came about.

The Leave campaign was largely built on misinformation. When confronted with the fact that the £350 million a week paid to the European Union, plastered over his battle bus, was misleading because it ignored the money that was returned to the UK by the EU, Johnson elected to keep it because it served to highlight that being with the EU came at a cost – whilst ignoring the benefits. Michael Gove, as justice minister no less, demonstrated little if any knowledge about the European Court of Justice suggesting that it had all sorts of powers over the UK which it does not. Britain is not part of the Schengen zone, Europe without borders; everyone arriving in Britain passes through UK Border Control. Time and time again Brexiteers argued that German car manufacturers needed us more than we needed them, therefore outside the EU Britain could have its cake and eat it, could have the economic benefits without the obligations. This is patently false,

Misinformation has become the weapon of choice.

Russian military doctrine understands misinformation to be the first weapon of attack.Belatedly our press seems to be waking up to this and to Putin’s mastery of the media.

In a free society we have come to expect our media to be even handed. Indeed this often legally mandated. This is interpreted as meaning that all sides of any argument must be evenly reported and given equal prominence. This is fine where all concerned play by the same rules. Where they don’t, the parties willing to use lies, deceit and deliberate misinformation and all the techniques of slander, vilification, internet trolling and delegitimisation which the Internet makes so easy, have a field day. The Russian state under Putin, rediscovering its Soviet past, is a master. Whether in defending state doping in sport, subverting Crimea, obfuscating liability for the shooting down in Ukraine of MH17, hit by a Russian ground to air missile, hacking the Democratic National Convention to embarrass Clinton and aid Donald Trump, brazenly  lying about who and what it is bombing in Syria, controlling domestic media to present an anti western stance on everything, opening its Sputnick  news agency in Edinburgh to stoke Scottish nationalism, promote Brexit and generally subvert the UK, Russia is showing itself to be at war with the norms of western democracy.

Trump, Brexiteers, Putin, is it any surprise that they profess to admire and support one another?

Israel has long complained about the British and European media, ascribing its disproportionate interest in Israel’s supposed misdeeds to traditional European antisemitism. I have never wholly subscribed to this explanation. True Israel has never been seen as a normal country, from the moment of its birth attracting attention, good and bad, disproportionate to its size. Understanding this, and unable to defeat Israel economically, socially or militarily, Israel’s enemies have found in the western media’s willingness to be an uncritical mouthpiece for disinformation and  delegitimisation a ready platform from which to seek to undermine Israel’s otherwise remarkable strength.

Lamentably, all too often my sense is that this campaign has been abetted by Israel’s failure to understand the importance of soft power, its failure to apply the same resources and determination to offensive media activity against its enemies and projecting a positive image among its friends as it devotes to military security.

(For more on this see: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tuning-in-to-hezbollahs-media-war/ )

In the recent European Referendum David Cameron and George Osborne similarly failed to understand the power of the positive. Relying on Project Fear, as it was soon dubbed, to scare the electorate instead of passionately making the case for Remaining part of the EU, they left the way open for Brexiteers.

Fortunately history is replete with examples of western leaders who did understand the power of the positive; FDR’s The only Thing We Have to Fear ……  Is Fear Itself, inspiring an America in the grip of the Great Depression not to give way to despair, , Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches; We shall fight them on the beaches, Blood toil, tears and sweat, This was their finest hour, inspiring his countrymen that victory would eventually be theirs; Margaret Thatcher The lady’s not for turning, articulating her resolve to change the mindset of a nation.

In the meantime, what’s to do?

Firstly to recognise information wars for what they are.

Be aware.

Be on our guard.

Push our journalists not to accept everything at face value.

Use social media to its fullest potential to puncture lies and promote the truth.

Never take for granted honesty and integrity in public life; they have to be constantly sought after where lacking and defended where present.

History story tells us that eventually truth will out, that the values of the western democracies are stronger and ultimately more resilient than the deceit of demagogues.

We need not despair.

 

SMO 13.08.2016

 

 

 

 

 

Blog 60 Brexit How Might We Get Out of this Mess? – An Update

Posted June 28, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

When I originally wrote Sunday’s blog it had a different ending.

Instead of suggesting that Reform Tories and Reform Labour got together to approach Europe before a General Election, I had written a scenario in which Reform MPs across party lines, that is those seeking to stay in a reformed EU, should form a cross party platform on which to seek a General Election now.

In light of developments this seems more realistic.  Increasingly there is evidence not only that the Brexiteers did not expect to win and had no plan, but also that they are hopelessly divided as to what they want and that even if they knew and could agree the prospects of obtaining that are unrealistic. Day by day it is also becoming clear that the Brexiteer promises such as “£350 million per annum more for the NHS” were pie in the sky whilst the hard economic consequences are increasingly real viz. In the last 24 hours

loss of triple A credit rating

loss of English language within the EU,

loss of jobs,

cancelled investment,

expectation of spending cuts and tax rises,

lower growth at best, recession at worst.

More and more people are asking “all for what?”.  No wonder talk of a second referendum grows.  Yet this too is unrealistic;  Parliament cannot just ignore the vote to Leave.

So here’s an update:

  • By the time this blog goes out it is highly likely that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will have passed a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. Whilst the Party members, albeit many of them disappointed with the referendum result, remain likely to support and vote in either Jeremy Corbyn or another equally unelectable candidate of the hard Left in any leadership re run.
  •  The Conservative Party is in a not dissimilar position. They say that the next Leader must be a Brexiteer.  The flaws of Boris Johnson as a potential Prime Minister are increasingly spoken about.  Michael Gove is not a contender.  The odds on Theresa May are therefore shortening.  Swapping David Cameron for Theresa May on the back of an unwanted Brexit vote  – how’s that for an unintended consequence!
  • Where does this leave the Parties? Theresa May somehow struggling to hold together a divided party, increasingly sick at heart, to make the best of an Article 50 negotiation to withdraw from Europe.  And a majority of Labour parliamentarians totally at odds with their party.
  • So back to my central proposition.  There is a large majority in Parliament not to withdraw from the EU.  Withdrawal has not yet taken place.  Before Article 50 is triggered Britain needs not just a new Prime Minister but a new government which has the support of Parliament.  Both Labour and Conservatives now need to recognise the reality of their respective situations.  Non Corbyn MPs declare a Reform Labour faction – whether constitutionally to take over all or part of the Labour Party or as a new party.  Reform Conservatives, those who voted remain and those disillusioned Brexiteers who never expected or really wanted to win, take back the Conservative Party  leaving a relatively few number of hard right Brexiteers either to fall in line or exit  – to UKIP or to stand as independent Brexit Conservatives.  Reform Conservatives and Reform Labour fight the election on a common platform – or separate platforms with common elements.  Personally I believe that, hard as it may be, the Conservatives must recognise that at this time Britain needs a party that is Left rather than Right of Centre.  It is clear that too many in the UK feel left out of the post 2009 recovery.   These are the people who deserted Labour to vote Leave.  Their disappointment and disillusion with what they see as the metropolitan elite has to be addressed.  Hence my previous Hilary Benn scenario. It’s a big ask, to put the country first.  But also compelling.  Theresa May never expected, and possibly  does not even wish, to be Prime Minister at this time. Remember “One Nation Conservatives”?  Now is the opportunity.  Let her and a group around her make common cause with Hilary Benn and colleagues around him to find a way to fight the election, in safe seats to agree not to split the vote and in marginals perhaps agreeing to support one or the other to ensure a strong Reform majority in Parliament. Sure one would expect to see UKIP members and hard Left members elected in such a scenario. But it’s hard to imagine that they could pose any material threat to the Centre. And there’s still the SNP, Lib Dems and Northern Ireland.
  • This strategy should produce a commanding majority in Parliament for a coalition government to negotiate Britain staying in a reformed EU.  There would of course need to be a coalition agreement and elements of  a common platform which would appeal to sufficient Conservative and former Labour voters.  As I have said, I believe that this platform would have to be Left of Centre.
  • The responses to my blog have been generally supportive, albeit with one or two of my readers taking issue with my suggestion that Britain is facing an existential crisis akin to that of 1940.  Of course this is not war.  But the place of Britain in the world, the prosperity and wholeness of our society, the prospects for our children and grandchildren to stay and prosper are indeed existential.
  • But what about the will of the people?  Yes, Britain has voted Leave.  This is a fact and in a democratic society cannot be ignored.  Only a government elected on a new mandate, pursuing a different negotiation with Europe can have the legitimacy to call, and the authority to win, a second referendum.
  • I am old enough to remember the decades when Britain was the sick man of Europe, run down, riven by industrial strife, the years of the Brain Drain, the place that the best and the brightest only wanted to leave – and did. In just a few days it’s starting to feel like that again.  Let there be no doubt, the Britain that we have come to take all too easily for granted is threatened.
  • Disappointed as I am, I have asked myself whether there is any point in my writing these blogs –  and whether indeed it is arrogant even to do so.  However, the response of my readers has been terrific, many of you writing to say that you have passed on my blog to others.  I don’t have access to the corridors of power.  It is a truism that the pen is mightier than the sword, that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.  Possibly, in a tiny way, I can contribute to that idea.  In any event, it’s better than sitting at home crying at the pity of it all.

 

SMO

28/6/2016

Blog 60 Brexit – How might we get out of this mess?

Posted June 26, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

 

 

There is a petition currently doing the rounds in Britain, over  2 million signatures in a few hours, seeking a second referendum. But it seems too late.

This blog is inspired by  the following:

Firstly the following email from one of my daughters:

I think it is but not sure if it (Second referendum) can be implemented retrospectively. I really doubt it will change anything but it is attracting a lot of media attention and may trigger parliament to do something radical. How can we watch our country fall apart and not try to do whatever we can?

Sadly I think so much damage has been done that even a change of vote will not help regain the good times that have been so carelessly and stupidly tossed aside.  

Secondly by Nicola Sturgeon’s measured but impassioned statement after the Referendum result that Scotland having voted decisively to Remain in the EU must once more reassess being part of the United Kingdom where union means being forcibly removed from the EU against its will.

Friends abroad are astounded and asking me what’s going on. This is what’s going on.

The United Kingdom has never been less united. London Scotland and Northern Ireland and the young of the entire UK voted to remain IN. The middle aged and elderly of England and Wales voted OUT, unclear what that would mean but untroubled since most expcted Remain to win

The political system which for centuries has served us so well suddenly appears broken. In a parliamentary democracy where parliament is sovereign referenda should have no place. They are a cop out for elected representatives, handing decisions that they have been chosen to take directly to the people whom they are meant to serve.

This referendum happened solely out of David’s Cameron’s misplaced fear of UKIP and the so called Eurosceptic wing of his Tory party, a device designed to secure office by avoiding a split in the Conservative party before the 2015 election.

Referenda have previously worked because the government of the day has achieved the result that Parliament overall wanted – though Scotland was a close call.

Brexit was never designed or intended to happen. European leaders miscalculated that they had given David Cameron enough to win his referendum. Cameron miscalculated the likelihood of Michel Gove and Boris Johnson jumping ship. No one allowed for the effect of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (for want of a better word) of the Labour Party. And what is becoming clearer by the hour is that really no one has a clue what to do now.

How many Brexiteers have you met who faced with the awful consequences of their vote have said that they never expected to win, but just wanted to send a message?

European leaders, fearing contagion, seek a rapid divorce which they never wanted but which will not be friendly. Fearing just that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove want informal talks before anything. Meanwhile there is no effective UK government or leadership. The prime minister, he who just a few days ago said that Brits don’t quit, has done just that – but not until October. Labour has turned on Corbyn but he won’t go either. The Lib Dems in Parliament scarcely exist. Whilst a clear majority of MP’s, elected just over a year ago, in both main parties, and all those from Scotland and Northern Ireland, favour Remain the two main parties are effectively leaderless and in the face of the Brexit vote seemingly impotent. Wherefore parliamentary sovereignty now?

The only two elected leaders with democratic authority and legitimacy (both having recently been elected or re-elected on a manifesto of remaining in the EU) are both outside Westminster –  Nicola Sturgeon First Minister of Scotland and Sadiq Kahn Mayor of London.

So what to do?

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Here is a plan.

Ultimately Parliament is sovereign. Withdrawal from the EU requires legislation – legislation which a clear majority of MP’s on both sides does not want. Negotiation of the terms of withdrawal requires an effective government able to command a majority in both Houses of Parliament. No such government exists.

Let the elected leaders of Scotland, London and Northern Ireland join forces to promote a common platform which commands the confidence of Parliament. This is how it might look.

  • The platform calls on MP’s from all parties to come together to form a Reform Coalition; a coalition of Reform Conservatives and Reform Labour. working together to preserve the UK.
  • For a single parliament all MP’s who wish to stay in Europe and seek reform of the EU from inside will pick a leader and deputy leader from among themselves to promote a Reform platform which transcends traditional party lines.
  • A possible candidate to be that leader is Hilary Benn.
  • A Reform platform will be left of centre but attractive to Tories who put avoiding the disintegration of the United Kingdom and staying in Europe in order to seek reform from within above narrow party politics.
  • There is an urgent need for action. Nature abhors a vacuum. Events cannot wait until October. A solution to the present vacuum is needed now.
  • We have an elected House of Commons. With the party system in a state of collapse, Members must recognise that in the words of the late Jo Cox MP a majority of them now have more in common than divides them.
  • Responding to the Vote to Leave but also to the question of What Now? Reform Tories and Reform Labour get together to immediately form a Coalition Reform Government, with a clear coalition agreement supported by the SNP Lib Dems and Northern Ireland MP’s. The new government delays invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Rome whilst seeking not so much as renegotiation of UK membership but EU wide reforms which are responsive to the general dissatisfaction throughout Europe. These will take time to achieve. If achieved they will be put by the Reform Coalition to the Nation – whether in the form of a second referendum or a general election. If not, then Article 50 remains. What’s not to like?
  • The new Reform Government will reflect both the results of the Brexit vote and the reality that no one now knows what to do now. Commanding a huge majority in Parliament, within a European Union deeply shocked by the Brexit vote and fearing for its future, it will have the democratic legitimacy and authority to seek the reforms which the unhappiness of electorates across Europe make essential. As just one example, foremost among these reforms might be to allow unfettered free movement only to European citizens born in the Member State of which they are nationals, permitting individual Member States to impose further conditions, such as point systems, on those who are effectively migrants. There will be others on which, fearful of their  electorates and fearing for the future of the Union, the governments of  all Member States could probably now agree.Yet again The UK might be seen to have come to the rescue of Europe.
  • A domestic platform would do well to appeal to the centre and centre left – an “emergency” 50% tax rate, soften austerity (UK public finances would be worse off under Brexit anyway), actually finance and build the Northern infrastructure rather than just talk about it, reverse some of the tax cuts perceived as favouring “the rich, reverse  the attack on buy to lets, expand Heathrow. The list is not hard to put together. Rather than seeing Great Britain become Little England, I am sure that I am not alone in saying that I would prefer to pay even a 60% tax rate for a while if that were the price of staying in Europe and reforming it from within.
  • Electorally opposed by UKIP to its left and right, a rather narrow wing of the Tory party on the right and a Corbyn hard left Labour party on the left, but supported by the SNP, Lib Dems and N Ireland such a Reform Government would potentially command a large a majority both in Parliament and in the country.

 

Pie in the sky? Simon dreaming? Maybe yes but maybe no. Interestingly I started writing this blog yesterday when I first wrote Hilary Benn’s name. Today he announced both his resignation from the Corbyn shadow cabinet and that he would not be candidate in any ensuing Labour leadership election.

Next steps. There is already a petition for a second referendum. I don’t believe in referendums. They subvert parliamentary sovereignty and all too often are the tool of demagogues. Better we ask that our elected MP’s should come together in Parliament to reflect both the message of the Referendum and the true needs of the UK. As in time of war, the future of the United Kingdom, to say nothing of the future shape of Europe of which by geography and heritage we will always be part, is at stake. Desperate times require desperate measures. In 1940 Churchill became prime minister and formed a National Government of Labour and Conservatives to prosecute the war. Hilary Benn, Nicola Sturgeon, Sadiq Kahn, history calls.

 

smo 26/06/2016

Blog 59: Strange times in London – Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism.

Posted May 5, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s some time since my last blog.

I am writing this in in the departure lounge at Newark International Airport waiting for my flight back to London after one of my regular  Board meetings in New York, this visit shorter than usual, I left London only yesterday!

I am always surprised by how much folk over here in the US know and ask me about the UK. Starting with the driver who picked me up and took me to my hotel (not my usual, on the night that Donald Trump sealed the Republican nomination the aptly named Trump Soho I am ashamed to tell) who told me everything I didn’t know about Leicester City’s extraordinary Premier League victory the previous night. Next over dinner to Brexit – sophisticated folk here finding it incomprehensible that Britain really might vote Leave, a view with which incidentally I entirely agree. And then finally to Corbyn, the Labour Party and was there really antisemitism in Britain?

On this topic, the following Opinion piece by Daniel Finkelstein which I found this morning in my electronic copy of The Times bears reproducing.

Labour’s crisis stems from the West-hating left
Daniel Finkelstein

Today’s arguments about antisemitism are tangled up in the wider belief that America is the predominant world evil
‘For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment.”
Once upon a time, an apparently sane and intelligent person, perfectly mannered, charming and with a good job, sat down, switched on his computer, paused for a moment to reflect, and then typed the passage I have just quoted. Then he sent it to a national newspaper where everyone could see it. Really he did.
It is right up there with “Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
In the same article the author argues that it is “a moral and historical nonsense” to say that Stalin was as bad as Hitler because “there was no Soviet Sobibor or Treblinka”; complains that the number of fatalities caused by the Soviet system is exaggerated; says that there are lessons to be learnt from Soviet success; and, crucially, regrets that with its demise we lost a “powerful counterweight to western global domination”.
I was quite surprised that he didn’t add that you can’t make an omelette without killing a few million people.
Seumas Milne wrote this piece ten years ago for The Guardian (during a period in which Michael Gove dubbed it “the Prada-Meinhof gang”) and in 2012 reprinted it in his book The Revenge of History. In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn appointed his old friend and close ally executive director of strategy and communications of the Labour party.
Anyone wanting to understand the argument about antisemitism and Labour needs to understand this: it is tangled up in something much bigger. The Corbyn left rejects western liberalism and the foreign policy that accompanies it.
There are any number of people and places you could start the tale of this ideology. In Siberia, or in the Congo, or in Ghana or a thousand other places, but let’s try New York.
In 1964, caught up in an increasingly violent factional row, the African-American dissident Malcolm X decided Harlem had become too hot for him. So he set off for the Middle East, seeking and finding intellectual inspiration.
His pilgrimage led him down two paths politically. The first was the adoption of a more orthodox form of Islam, the second his engagement with the idea of Pan-Africanism, the idea of various African dictators (some of whom had earlier been independence fighters). Together this led him to an emphasis on the idea of a single African people victimised by colonialism.
Pan-Africanism was warmer to the Soviet Union than it was to America
Pan-Africanism adopted socialist economics, was warmer to the Soviet Union than to America and was extended to Arab countries, assigning to them African identity. In Cairo, making friends with his new Middle Eastern allies, Malcolm X embraced fierce anti-Zionism. He had long regarded Jews as exploiting black people, and he now added hatred of Israel. He talked of “Zionist dollars” bankrolling colonial oppression.
Before Malcolm died, he had inserted these ideas into the mix of American left dissent. They were taken up, for instance, by the Black Power student leader Stokely Carmichael, who before long began calling himself Kwame Ture, adopting the names of the Pan-Africanist dictators of Ghana and Guinea. “The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist,” Ture used to say, adding praise for Hitler just to spice things up a bit.
It is this mixture — civil rights dissent, black power, Pan-Africanism, opposition to the Vietnam War, neutralism and pacifism, anti-Zionism, anti-colonialism — that reshaped the left in the 1960s as it attempted to regain its footing after the death of Stalin. It brought together good causes and bad, the connected and the unconnected, in an angry denunciation of western liberalism.
This new anti-imperialism saw — sees — America and American power as the predominant world evil. African dictatorships, Soviet repression, Islamist terrorism, fundamentalist misogyny are all only a problem if they can somehow be blamed on the United States.
Those wondering why Jeremy Corbyn has been so ineffective in his response to the antisemitism row are missing how difficult this topic is for him. It is closely tied to his overall world view.
Seumas Milne, who writes with great verve and has the intellectual confidence to express his ideas clearly, sets out the argument of left anti-imperialism very boldly in The Revenge of History.
He begins with a celebration of the way that “the US client state of Georgia” was “crushed in a brief and bloody war” by Russia in 2012. Georgia, he explained, “was a particular favourite of Washington’s neoconservatives” and its forces were “armed and trained by the US and Israel”. After two decades “the years of uncontested US power were over”.
Oh great. Contested now by Vladimir Putin. That’s excellent news, Seumas, thanks.
Not just by Putin though. Also by 9/11 (“perhaps the most successful terror attack in history”), the financial crash, the rise of China and the populist economics of Latin American strongmen. All these had ended the attempt by “the West’s political and corporate elites” to “spread a globalised model of neoliberal capitalism across the world”.
Yes 9/11 was an atrocity but it was one, you understand, that America brought upon itself, an act of resistance against American interference. This interference was even disastrous in Kosovo where the Nato bombing campaign “increased both the scale of ethnic cleansing and repression it was supposed to stop, and only secured Serb withdrawal through Russian pressure.” Ah, Russian pressure, that’s all right then.
For most of us in the political mainstream, Nato and its allies are the defenders of liberal values as well as national security. For Milne, for Jeremy Corbyn, for their supporters, Nato is the dark star.
What is happening in the Labour party is not (just) the crassness of a few councillors and the odd MP saying some embarrassing things about Jews. It is the abandonment of its identity as an Atlanticist progressive party. And it cannot be stopped until this identity is reasserted.

When I was growing up in Britain in the Fifties and early Sixties manifestations of institutional anti-Jewish prejudice were normal; schools with Jewish quotas, city law firms and merchant banks where Jews need not apply, golf clubs which openly barred Jewish members, Jews feeling welcome in the Labour Party but not among Conservatives.

However, largely due to successive Labour Governments which, controversially, used the law to prescribe what they regarded as unacceptable behaviour, change was afoot. Britain became an open society where public expression or manifestation of prejudice on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual proclivity and most recently age became firstly unlawful and then socially unacceptable.
The latent anti-Semitism with which I grew up is unimaginable today in a Britain where, to give just a few examples, the recently retired Chief Rabbi became recognised as the nation’s most respected cleric and religious broadcaster, the last editor of the Times was Jewish, and likewise the senior or managing partners of several Magic Circle law firms.

Because of this for some time I have found myself at odds with the view of many in Israel and increasingly within the Jewish Community that antisemitism is now becoming endemic in England. Plainly it is not.

What has become endemic is an ugly anti-Israel hysteria among many in the media and the often left wing commentariat, the typical Guardian reader if you will, which at best has become increasingly difficult to distinguish from historic anti-Semitism and, perhaps more realistically, has become its latest manifestation, in a form that it has become politically acceptable to express.

In an Opinion piece also in The Times Melanie Philips in her usually forthright style describes this well.
Hatred of Israel and Jews can’t be separated
Melanie Phillips
The left is institutionally anti-Israel, while the media has conspired to ignore Palestinian racism
The current uproar over antisemitism is truly a wonder to behold. For the past three decades and more, antisemitism was the prejudice that dared not speak its name. It was deemed to have been stamped out, other than among cranks on the far right.
Anyone rash enough to protest that the anti-Israel animus in progressive circles was a mutation of ancient Jew-hatred was told they were “waving the shroud of the Holocaust” to sanitise the crimes of Israel. There could be no connection. The left was institutionally anti-racist, wasn’t it?
On the contrary, the left is institutionally anti-Israel and the connection is irrefutable. For sure, many who loathe Israel may not be hostile to Jews as people. Nevertheless the narrative of Israel to which they subscribe is inescapably anti-Jew.
This is because antisemitism is a unique phenomenon. No other people has ever been demonised in this way by lies and libels. The animus against Israel is unique in the same way. It is not the legitimate “criticism” that should accrue to Israel like any other nation. It treats Israel quite unlike any other country.
As with classic Jew-hatred, it is obsessional. No other country, however despotic or tyrannical, consumes and convulses the progressive mind as does democratic, human rights-driven Israel.
The hostility is irrational, based on demonstrable untruths and distortions. It holds Jews/Israel to standards expected of no other country; it denies the victimisation of Jews/Israelis; it claims Jews/Israel exercise malign and conspiratorial global influence.
Among the educated classes, Israel, the target of decades of Arab exterminatory aggression, is almost universally presented as the villain and the Palestinians as its victims. Israel is held to be responsible for the absence of a Palestine state and thus the obstacle to solving the Middle East conflict.
The fact that the Arabs turned down proposals or offers of a Palestine state alongside Israel in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, responding instead with terrorism or war, is ignored. The repeated statements of the Palestinian leadership that its real aim is to capture all of Israel are also ignored. It is never reported how the Palestinian Authority-controlled media and educational materials routinely incite Palestinian children to hate Jews, murder Israelis and capture every Israeli city.
On campuses, Jewish students run a gauntlet of hatred and bigotry
Instead, Britain is told that the Israelis are child-killers. During the 2014 war in Gaza, when Israel finally responded to years of rocket attacks by launching airstrikes against Hamas, broadcast and print media claimed Israel was recklessly or deliberately killing hundreds of Palestinian children and other civilians.
In fact, as the High Level Military Group of western top brass told the UN last year, the lengths to which Israel went to try to protect Gaza’s civilians far exceeded the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, even at the cost of its own soldiers’ and civilians’ lives, and going further than any other nation’s army would ever do.
Yet the British public had been told, virtually without contradiction, that Israel had wantonly killed hundreds of children. Among those on the left now vowing to root out antisemitism, I didn’t notice any of them rushing to condemn that
Jeremy Corbyn has been pilloried for supporting people who want to kill Jews. But virtually the whole of the left (including Jewish leftists) supports Palestinians who teach their children to hate and kill Jews. In demanding “settlers out”, such progressive anti-racists support the ethnic cleansing of Jews from a future state of Palestine.
Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah may be particularly baroque examples, but this Jew-hatred goes far wider than either Corbyn or the Labour party. How did it come to this? people ask, while continuing to vilify Israel. This poison won’t be purged until and unless they finally acknowledge the source of the contagion.

With left wing anti-Israel hysteria so openly expressed in the media, in the Universities, and now in the Labour Party, how to distinguish obsessional hostility towards Israel and everything Israeli, which is increasingly prevalent in Britain from the social and institutional anti-Semitism with which I grew up, which is not?

Perhaps Finkelstein provides the answer.

Make no mistake. This left wing pro Islamist anti-Israel hysteria is ugly and dangerous. It must be exposed and combatted by all available means. Unchecked, and if not seen for what it is, it threatens everything that we in Britain hold dear. However by conflating it with traditional anti-semitism Jews risk allowing it to be seen as the problem only of the Jewish Community instead of the attack on progressive liberal British society as a whole which, as Daniel Finkelstein makes clear, it truly is.

SMO

4/5/2016

Blog 58 Tobago Cays

Posted January 12, 2016 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am writing this from a 50ft Trade Winds crewed catamaran in Tobago Cays on which Susie and I are guests. Although away a lot we decided that from time to time we should make the effort to take real holidays. We have always loved sailing but find the prospect of lying by a pool or beach unappealing. So the opportunity to chill for a week on what is in effect a floating luxury villa in the Caribbean was hard to pass up.

After several wonderfully brain dead days among the Trade Winds I find my thoughts turning to the December which has just ended – in retrospect possibly one of the most varied and interesting in years. I really have no idea where this will take me, perhaps even to the waste bin to which many of the blogs that I begin find their way. But begin I shall.

On December 4th Susie and I flew back into Tel Aviv, where we had not been since September after which we returned to London for my hip replacement. Some of my readers may have detected my growing sense of disappoinment with much that is Israel today. So it was without our usual enthusiasm that we boarded our plane at Heathrow. As it turned out we were in for a superb two weeks.

At dinner at my sister in law’s that evening we met a lady, now also living in Herzlia, who had been a household name and something of a hero to me in the early 1970’s. Doreen Gainsford was synonymous with the The 35’s For a Soviet Jewry, a rather unlikely group of mainly well-heeled Jewish women in London who at the height of the Cold War had campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Soviet refuseniks. Refuseniks were Jewish citizens of the USSR who, having applied for and been refused exit visas to emigrate to Israel, were invariably dismissed from their jobs and often sentenced to long terms in the gulag.  It was Doreen and her cohort who drew media attention to their plight and were in no small way responsible for interest of the West in securing their release, Natan Sharansky was among the best known.

Next day, Shabbat, after a brilliant beach walk in the winter sunshine we set off for Yerhuham, a small development town in the Negev, founded in 1951. Still a poor town, never the less the local council had established a social enterprise which had transformed a former factory site into a really attractive ” Desert Hotel” serving tourists wishing to explore the Small and Large Craters in the Negev desert on whose edge it stands.

We were coming to meet up with a hiking group from London, mainly semi retirees like ourselves, with whom we were to spend the next three days hiking the Negev.  We had a local guide Gil, formidably qualified for the job as so many Israeli guides are, who miraculously managed to corral us to start and finish on time and where we were supposed to be.  Just ten weeks after my hip op, it was always going to be touch and go whether I would be fit enough to participate in what on any basis was a challenging program: 13/16 km a day walking and clambering through terrain that was often as difficult as it was stunning. So it was with some trepidation that the next day I climbed aboard the mini bus that was to take us to our destination.

I needn’t have worried. Gil was superb. Likewise the job that my medicinal and rehab team had done for me in London. The exhilaration and satisfaction of completing a tough hike, climbing and descending the steep Ramon’s Tooth, all just three hours from Tel Aviv reminded me of one of the amazing aspects of Israel that I so love – the astonishing diversity of its terrain which Israel has done so much to cherish and preserve whilst at the same time making it accessible.

Blog 58 photo 1

 

The Negev is, or should be, the strength in depth that Israel so lacks. We visited Ben Gurion’s simple tomb, overlooking the wilderness of Zin and the austere kibbutz home to which he retired. It was Ben Gurion who first among Israel’s leaders understood the importance of the Negev to Israel’s future, who established what is now the increasingly respected Ben Gurion University of the Negev at Beersheba and who, leading by example, sought to persuade a young Israel of what an enormous asset the Negev could be if only it were developed – a fact sadly neglected by too many of his successors.

Returning to Herzlia we unexpectedly found ourselves guests at an impromptu dinner part, brought along by Doreen and her husband. The fact that we had ourselves only just met and knew no one at the dinner seemed to be  of no consequence. Our hostess Rachel, herself an IP lawyer, was the not long ago widowed wife of Michael Sternberg, a firmer US diplomat who for 24,years until his sudden  death was the highly respected  head of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) office in Israel. As the Director General’s Representative in Israel, the MFO’s liaison to the Israel government, he was known to have made a quiet but significant contribution to peace in the region.

Also at dinner was the former MFO Chief Legal Counsel, a non Jewish Harvard educated US lawyer who had made his career in government,  his Australian Israeli Jewish partner, who was the reason he was still in Israel and Mike E, also non Jewish, who had made  his home in Herzlia some years ago and stayed notwithstanding the break up  of the relationship which originally brought him there. Mike seemed to have no trouble running his international business strategy consultancy from Herzlia where he also teaches and is faculty at the increasingly highly regarded Herzlia  Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) graduate school.

I have written of the diversity of Israel’s terrain. So too Israel’s society. I cannot think there are many places where out of the blue Susie and I would find ourselves not only welcome but immediately connected to the extraordinary mosaic of often unlikely players who make up at least a small part of what I suppose it is fair to describe as Israel’s intelligentsia.

Inevitably the conversation turned to “the situation”. Israelis are news junkies at the best of times. With Syria’s civil war raging to the North, Isis and Russian air bases just beyond the horizon, and Isis inspired stabbing and shooting attacks on the doorstop, no wonder that what the future holds is on everyone’s mind and lips. Among our fellow guests there was general disdain for Natanyahu, despair at the workings of Israel’s dysfunctional political system, and a consensus that the “Occupation” in its present form could not continue – but absolutely none as to the alternative. Interestingly this was at complete variance with the view of our hiking guide Gil, a representative of what might be called ” middle Israel”: Natanyahu was the only possible leader, the Occupation might seem unfortunate but was entirely necessary, Israel is surrounded by enemies, it can and should rely only on its (considerable) strength and get on with life – a view seemingly reflective of the majority.

Everything about Israel seems to be a paradox. Sitting the following week in a board Meeting 22 floors above Tel Aviv, I look out on a forest of cranes building more and more high rise offices and apartments, look down on intricate motorways which dwarf anything in London, encounter the logos of every global company, yet when descending into the street find no Metro, surely the  last major city in the OECD, to  which Israel was proud to be admitted, without one. Never the less, little indication here of any anxiety about the future.

And yet. And yet.

Back home in London for Christmas week, our first in London for many a year, we took out three days to attend Limmud. Limmud, is an extraordinarily successful creation, originally the brain child of one man, Clive Lawson, which brings together Jews and those interested in the Jewish world to participate in what I can best describe as a cross between a literary festival, a university student conference and an assembly of Jewish youth groups. Limmud means study in Hebrew. At any hour there are up to thirty different sessions, some small and of special interest, some with known speakers of more general interest with conference rooms bursting. Truly a cornucopia of interest.

Three that I attended bear particular mention.

John Spyer has made a career of studying and interpreting the Middle East. In his talk ” An Overview of the Current Strategic Situation in the Middle East”  he attempted to put into context the forces currently  ravaging the region: the collapse of the largely artificial states created by the British and French Colonial Powers in the aftermath of WW1, the significance of tribal allegiances, all within the age old Shiite / Sunni divide, all with the competing, opportunistic and frequently changing   interests  of regional and global powers overlaid. No wonder it seems complicated – because it is. (For perhaps a glimmer of understanding think Europe, The Thirty Years War 1618-48).

Another talk looked at the immediate effect on Israel of the Syrian Civil War. Bottom line, for now at least Israel is militarily strong, and at the time of writing still ssentially unthreatened by any of the forces swirling around it. Israel’s policy is to stay out, to respond powerfully to any attack on its own territory, from whomever or wherever it comes, whilst offering first world medical aid on its border for anyone able to reach it. The IDF has set up a fully functioning field hospital right on the border for such purpose.

One story that was told us is perhaps worth repeating.

A horribly injured fighter, who turned out to be head of an jihadist militia virulently opposed to everything Western and of course Israel, was brought to the border hospital with horrific injuries. . His injuries (his jaw had been shot away) being beyond the capability of the field hospital, he was helicoptered to Haifa’s world class Rambam teaching hospital. By chance the head of oral maxillary surgery had recently returned from a conference where he had learned about techniques using 3D printers to rebuild missing bone structure. Applying what he had learned the Rambam team set about rebuilding the jihadist’s jaw. When recovered he was returned to Syria. Six months later he reappeared – seeking a check up!

Nothing in the Middle East is quite what it seems.

Lastly I want to mention one of a series of presentations given by Sergio DellaPergola, Emeritus Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  DellaPergola,  is the world’s leading demographer of the Jewish world. I would like to be able to share his entire presentation which was spell binding. But I did receive a copy of his slides, one   of which, with his permission I shall reproduce.

 

Blog 58 slide

 

I have recently become fascinated by demography, my interest triggered by an extraordinary BBC2  program “Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population” presented by Prof Hans Rosling.

I urge everyone to look at if they can find it. The data shows that recent global progress is ‘the greatest story of our time – possibly the greatest story in all of human history’

Demographic data projections frequently defy conventional wisdom but do not lie. Forecasts which Della Pergola made thirty years ago have proved accurate to 1.5%!

In response to a question from the floor DellaPergola told us that he was several times called in to present to the Cabinets of the Sharon and Olmert Israeli governments – but never by Natanyahu.

The demographics story is clear. Israel has to make choices. The status quo, notwithstanding its seeming attractiveness, is untenable. Something the present government of Israel seems to prefer to ignore.

Our December Israel visit reminded me of all that I find so attractive and compelling – the easy informality and buzz of Tel Aviv, a city in whose centre people still live as well as work, the peace and tranquility of our home in Galilee, now transformed into a luxury fully serviced holiday rental destination when we are not using it,  the often astonishing inventiveness and originality of its people; but also of the needless infuriating frustrations, the dysfunctionality of Israel’s political system, the head in the sand world view of its leadership, the glaring missed opportunities which threaten everything that is so good.

I am also frequently struck by the seeming Israeli ability in daily life to make difficult what should be easy – whilst often making the seemingly impossible appear quite easy.

An example of the latter is the remarkable way in which in the last two decades Israel has transformed the water scarcity which threatened its existence into a huge success story. Desalination, using techniques pioneered by Israeli scientists and technicians and powered largely by abundant natural gas fields conveniently found offshore, accounts for over half of Israel’s domestic and industrial water consumption, whilst grey water provides 85% of agricultural requirements, making Israel a world leader in water conservation.

The same natural gas, by the way, if properly managed, will assure Israel’s energy needs for decades to come.

Ben Gurion understood the potential of the Negev.

The situations of Phoenix, Arizona and Beersheva have many similarities. Both are relatively remote desert cities. Both need water and energy to survive and grow. In the mid 1990’s the populations of Phoenix and Beersheva were approximately 2.0 million and 150,000 respectively.

Today the population of Phoenix approaches 5 million, that of Beersheva is around 210,000.

Now that Israel  has water and energy a plenty, imagine an Israel in 2025 where Beersheva is a still fast growing  science city of well over a million, connected to Tel Aviv and Eilat by  high speed rail, much of its population drawn from the former settlements of the West Bank and from East Jerusalem, many among them still religious but now also part of the work force, served by Israel’s much needed second international airport, it’s world renowned  University and numerous colleges famous for developing new areas of ecology and environmental science, it’s per capita income rivalling that of Tel Aviv, it’s climate, still affordable housing, lifestyle and accessibility  attracting the young and not so young from all corners of the globe.

A dream?

Yes.  But in the words of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, “if you will it it need be no dream”

My dismay is that entering 2016 Israel appears to have no Ben Gurion capable of seeing beyond the immediate, of dreaming the dream of Israel’s potential, of providing the leadership to realise that dream by unleashing the energy and capability with which Israel is so blessed – and in so doing to assure its future.

 

SMO 2-9/01/2016

 

Coda. This part of the Caribbean is also something of a shock. The islands of St Vincent and The Grenadines are still dirt poor by European standards, the juxtaposition of tourist wealth and local poverty ever present. Yet everywhere we were struck by the friendliness of everyone, not only to us as tourists but to one another. Rastafarian country no doubt with plenty of ganja, but perhaps against the odds independence seems to have worked.  Life is slow. But looks good.    On our final  morning in Bequia, through a mutual friend, Susie and I had the great good fortune to be hosted by Sir James Mitchell, the exceptionally long serving  second prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Fitz-Allen_Mitchell)

blog 58 photo 2

It seems that the islands have benefited from their British heritage and good leadership, making the transition from a sugar and whaling economy to one based mainly on tourism. The local churches are full. The previous week we had enjoyed standing at the back of the local Anglican church, appreciating its elegant simplicity, windows and doors wide open to the breeze, the azure blue interior and singing of the congestion strangely reminiscent of one of the one of the oldest synagogues in Safed. Law and order, the political system, education and health care are modelled on the British system and seem to work. The locals are in charge, but whites seem very welcome. A nice touch – foreigners who build holiday homes on the island are encouraged to fund scholarships for local pupils to study in the best schools.
Here, as everywhere, good leadership or its absence makes all the difference.

Blog 57  After Paris: some cause for optimism?

Posted November 19, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

 

 

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I am finding current events fascinating.

Originally I had planned to be in Israel this week but for various reasons decided to postpone.

Ever since last Friday night London has felt really close to Paris and I am glad to be here.  Britain and France are old rivals.  The empathy between our peoples this week has been extraordinary.

One of the benefits of having lived for a reasonably long time is perspective – in my case aided by having always read a lot of history.

For many years my friends in Israel have looked askance at Britain and Europe, seeing us as blind to the Islamic penetration of our society; aghast at what might be described colloquially as our lack of “bottle”.  For similar reasons many around us in London have expressed pessimism for the future of their grandchildren here.  A pessimism which I do not share.

Within my lifetime I have seen the liberal democracies triumph over fascism and communism.  The threats were very great.  All too often our democracies responded late, seemed blind to the dangers, from without and within.  Only late in the day did leaders arise who, aided by events, were able to change the public mood and create a new direction of travel.  Churchill in Britain and, after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt in the US.

We have forgotten how close the UK came to an accommodation with Hitler’s Germany, how strong were the forces for appeasement.

The story is well told in Franson Lukacs “Five Days in London” (http://www.troynovant.com/Franson/Lukacs/Five-Days-in-London.html ).

Or for a brief summary lifted from Wikipedia:

“The May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis was a confrontation between Winston Churchill, newly appointed as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Viscount Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, which took place early in World War II. Halifax believed that in view of the successful German invasion of France and the encirclement of British forces at Dunkirk the United Kingdom should try to negotiate a peace settlement with Adolf Hitler. Churchill disagreed, believing “that nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished” and that Hitler was unlikely to honour any agreement. Moreover, he believed that this was the view of the British people. Between 25 and 28 May Churchill and Halifax each fought to bring the British War Cabinet round to his own point of view; by 28 May it seemed as if Halifax had the upper hand and Churchill might be forced from office. However Churchill outmanoeuvred Halifax by calling a meeting of his 25-member Outer Cabinet, to whom he delivered a passionate speech, saying “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground”,[1] convincing all present that Britain must fight on against Hitler whatever the cost”

Before Pearl Harbor the United States was isolationist and really did not want to see either Nazi Germany or Japan as a threat, refusing entry visas to Jews seeking to escape Europe and shipping iron ore to Japan.  The response of the United States under Roosevelt’s leadership to Pearl Harbor was not what Japan expected, still less the American declaration of war on Germany.

Initially the West, as liberal democracies came to be known, understood the threat posed by Stalin’s Soviet Union.  The creation of NATO, the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan were highly effective.  Europe was divided but Soviet expansionism was contained.

However the Soviet threat was both external (military) and internal (social and industrial).  From the archives which became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union we now know how intent Russia was on overpowering the West. Whilst the influence of Soviet inspired (and funded) peace movements grew.

Robert Service’s recently published “The End of the Cold War 1985-91” drawing on massive research and interviews is a hugely worthwhile read. He paints a fascinating description, superbly illustrated from contemporary sources, of how after years of irresolute weakness  western leadership under the leadership of President Reagan eventually came together psychologically, economically and militarily to prevail over what had until then seemed an overwhelmingly powerful and dangerous Soviet Union.  Looking back, this may seem to have been inevitable.  Not at the time.

So back to Paris.  The conflict between Islam and Christian (now “liberal democratic”) Europe is not a new one.  In 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna, signalling the pinnacle of the Ottoman Empire’s power and the maximum extent of Ottoman expansion in Central Europe.  Centuries previously the Moors had ruled over much of Spain until their final expulsion from Granada in 1492.  After 1529 The Ottoman wars continued for a further 150 years culminating in the Battle of Vienna on 11th and 12th September 1683 in which the military forces of the Ottoman Empire were defeated by the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.

What is new is the surge of Muslim immigration into Europe and the rise of urban terrorism carried out by “radicalised” local (and often native born) Muslims sheltered by a large host population – immigrants and the children of immigrants.  In the face of the bombings in Madrid (2004), London (7/7/2005), the Woolwich murder of Gunner Rigby (2013), the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels (2014) and the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in January of this year, , Europe remained supine. Our leader’s mouthed platitudes, candles were lit but a concern not to offend the local Muslim populations seemed to outweigh any further reaction.

For many years, influenced by my interest in history, I have been saying that the European worm is maybe slow to turn, but turn it will; that there is a limit to tolerance, that we can draw comfort from recent history that ultimately the Western democracies are strong, that when sufficiently threatened they are resolute in defence and, if necessary, ferocious in response.

Are we at the beginning of this now?  Paris was an attack on the young, as so many have said an attack  “on our way of life”. Young people were mown down in the Bacalan, in surrounding cafes, and in what would have been in massive numbers at the Stade de France had the plan worked, seemingly because ultimately “our way of life” is precisely what the jihadists hate and seek to destroy.  .  It really wasn’t about France’s foreign policy.  It wasn’t about Israel or Palestine.  It was about the essence of the way we choose to live.

I haven’t been in Israel and I haven’t heard anyone actually say this.  But reeling from the decision of the European Commission to require the labelling of Israeli goods manufactured in the West Bank, and increasingly aware of academic boycotts, I could understand a certain schadenfreude; a feeling after Paris that “perhaps you will we understand what we have been living through for so long”.  There are indeed parallels.  The bombing and shooting of innocents going about their business which characterised the second intifada have come to Europe with a vengeance.  There is however a difference.  For better or worse the perceived injustice of 50 years Israeli rule over the occupants of the West Bank in combination with Israel’s settlement policy undermines the moral strength of Israel’s position as a liberal democracy defending itself against the forces of radical Islam.  This is unfortunate.

So how come my optimism?

I am reading Matthew Syed’s “Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success”.  Syed writes of the prevalence of what he describes as “closed loop thinking”, of how people and organisations are unable to learn from mistakes and so continue with the thinking which led to those mistakes rather than change tack.

My optimism, such as it is, derives from the thought that just maybe Paris is the beginning of such a change of tack.

Our leaders, following the conventional politically correct wisdom, have been reluctant to recognise the threat to Europe posed by Islam.

I am sure that in common with many of my readers, I have been deeply moved by the voices of so many young people interviewed expressing a determination to stand up for the values of our societies, admitting fear but with it an unwillingness to be cowed. Maybe I am over optimistic. But in the media and among politicians  I believe that I am beginning to detect a willingness to admit publically what we all know – viz. that almost all urban terrorism throughout the world comes from Islam and that whilst the jihadists may not be representative of their host communities nor can they be separated from them.

It’s a massively complicated problem – how to defeat extremism from without and within without destroying our societies whilst doing so. But admitting that the problem exists, recognising that our way of life is now under attack, a belief that it is worth defending and a determination to do whatever has to be done to defend it, surely are the necessary first steps.

 

smo /London 19/11/2016

Blog 56: Grounded

Posted October 5, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am grounded here at our home in Highgate. Grounded following a successful hip replacement two weeks ago, for the next month no fly and for now also no driving. And I am so happy.

Firstly to have this operation behind me. Originally scheduled for August 2nd in Israel it’s been looming all year. Although I was not in any great pain it was always there and clearly not improving. In the event I had to postpone to take care of my wife’s more urgent need to have knee surgery in London. I was so impressed by her surgeon and her whole experience that when I discovered that Prof Fares Haddad was also one of London’s most highly rated hip surgeons and had an available slot mid-September there seemed no reason to wait to go back to Israel.

So here I am enjoying amazing late summer/early autumn golden weather, friends and family calling in, being beautifully looked after, sleeps in the afternoon, feeling rested and pain free, doing my exercises religiously but otherwise with that most blessed commodity – time to have time.

Time to allocate as I choose, to enjoy catching up on boxed sets on TV and the Rugby World Cup (at least until England crashed out); to finish the Times each day; to chat to neighbours (we are fortunate to live in a road where the average stay is 30 years, where we pretty much all know each other, often through three generations); time to read and to look out at the world.

This is my second hip operation. My last was in Israel five years ago. Its amazing how access to TV and reading material has changed since then, almost everything I could want instantly available through my iPad. How quickly we become used to technology change and take it for granted.

Looking out on the world with time to think brings to mind the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times!”

Britain, the preferred destination of so many migrants fleeing the Middle East, feels an island of stability. The takeover of the Labour Party by the hard left and the election of Jeremy Corbyn, clearly no friend of Israel, as Labour Leader is uncomfortable – back to the Seventies that I thought we had long left behind. The Seventies by the way was why I qualified to practice at the State Bar of California Bar  where we would almost certainly now be living had not Mrs Thatcher arrived on the political scene just in time to rescue Britain. At the same time I cannot help being impressed by the way the British political system works, by the courtesy, the restraint, by the vibrant analysis and penetrating yet always civilised commentary. I missed that in Israel. So even with Corbyn Britain still feels good.

Beyond these shores I see clouds aplenty. Europe is clearly not working as it might. My sense is that Britain doesn’t want to be in Europe as it is now but at the same time does not really want to go it alone in a dangerous world. Since change in Europe is likely to be evolutionary, at best, the likelihood of a Britain sleep walking to a Brexit looks very real. Time and again David Cameron and George Osborne have shown that they know what they are doing. Europe has been toxic for the Conservatives.  I just hope that they have not lost their touch.

The impotency of President Obama, with still another 15 months in office, coupled with the dysfunctional American political system (Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton are they really the preferred candidates?) is a very dark cloud indeed. “Leading from behind”, Obama’s specialty, seems to have America wrong footed, played and outmanoeuvered in every direction – Iran, Syria, Ukraine and China. This hardly inspires confidence.

Among the books electronically piled up on my bedside table is Robert Service’s “The End of the Cold War”. I spotted an extensive review of it by Roger Boyes in Saturday’s London Times.

Robert Service addresses questions which fascinated me at the time and now. Not only did Mrs Thatcher save Britain, she and Ronald Reagan “won” the Cold War which had been the backdrop to my entire life. But how and why? It is worth reading. So with acknowledgement to The Times, and with a slight apology to my less time rich readers that it is not shorter, I reproduce it below.

The End of the Cold War: 1985-91 by Robert Service

“I spent my teenage years in a military family waiting for the Red Army to roll into western Europe, my student years wondering whether that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and my formative time in journalism living in Poland pretty sure that Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks were about to turn up on my doorstep.

It was the great backdrop to the lives of my generation. Robert Service probably understands this era better than any narrative historian alive. His book is presented as a diplomatic history of the end of the Cold War but this is far more than that: it taps into half a century of anxieties, unearthing which were rational, which were imagined.

Why did the Cold War fail to turn into a cataclysmic third world war? How did the frost melt? These have to be more than purely historical questions. Today, we’re not, in truth, facing Cold War 2.0, even though Vladimir Putin operates from bleakly familiar scripts. Only the other day Russian goons snatched an Estonian officer, sentenced him to 15 years in a labour camp, then arranged a spy swap on a bridge. Just like the old days. If we are ever baffled by the speed with which the Kremlin boss changes register — swivelling between confrontation, subversion and co-operation — then we should remember how helter-skelter the East-West relationship has become since the 1980s. Vladimir Putin is the child of the Cold War and it shows.

Excavating the archives, Service has come up with an intriguing account of the tense period from 1985 to 1991. At the beginning of the 1980s, we were wobbling at the very edge of the volcano. By the end, the Soviet Union had disintegrated. There have, of course, been plenty of books about the Cold War, yet there is still a need for a bilateral analysis, a work that looks at interaction between the changing positions, doubts and fears of East and West. Service does that.

There really is no other way of tackling the outstanding questions — above all, what was the balance between pragmatic pressure and intellectual conviction in both Moscow and Washington? Did the knackered, dysfunctional Soviet economy really leave Mikhail Gorbachev no choice but to reach an understanding with the West? Did Ronald Reagan’s boost in defence expenditure for his Star Wars project “spend the Soviets to death”?

The working premise of the Cold War was that world peace could only be preserved in the nuclear age if both sides were too frightened to use their weapons. That provided an incentive to constantly upgrade those weapons and make them ever more fearful. Yet the more terrifyingly effective they became, the less likely it was that they would be used by a rational decision-maker. It was ruinous and a crazy way of running the world.

Reagan visited the nuclear weapons bunker in Colorado while on the campaign trail before the 1980 election and was shocked to learn that America could not prevent a nuclear first strike. He could blow Moscow to bits by way of retaliation but then “the entire planet would suffer from blast, fire, radiation and smoke that would kill millions of people, perhaps billions”. As president he continued to be stunned that he “carried no wallet, no money, no driver’s licence, no keys in my pocket — only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we know it”. He took to reading Tom Clancy thrillers to see how the armageddon could be avoided.

Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, had a similar epiphany when the Soviet general staff briefed him that an American first strike would lead to an exchange with a death toll of 80 million Soviet citizens. Russian commanders, noticing how his hands shook, took to watering down their strategic updates.

Planning for a hot war lost all sense of reality. A Polish general told his commander-in-chief, General Jaruzelski, that the only way out was to construct a large underground fortification. “Lock up in that bunker a hundred Polish men — some really good f***ers — together with two hundred women so that we can rebuild the Polish nation.” Jaruzelski took offence, not just because of the language but because it rattled at the idea that nuclear war could ever be won.

Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative — an anti-missile defence system in outer space — addressed this question. Even to US sceptics, “Star Wars” had the merit of forcing Moscow to engage in a hideously expensive arms race that it could never win. To the Soviet politburo it was a wilful attempt to destabilise the world. Reagan’s rhetoric about the “evil empire” and his unpredictability drove the pre-Gorbachev Kremlin leadership into a frenzy of self-doubt. In a brilliantly strategic gaffe in 1983 Reagan jokingly spoke into a mike: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that today I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” It wasn’t exactly LOL in Moscow.

The advent of Gorbachev shifted the terms of superpower discourse. He won over Margaret Thatcher who became his enthusiastic lobbyist. Gorbachev understood the subtext of Star Wars: that nuclear arsenals were at unmanageable levels. And that Moscow had to shift resources from a self-aggrandising military to reviving the economy. A Japanese sewing factory, Gorbachev told the central committee, could produce with just 600 workers the equivalent of the output of 900,000 Soviet workers.

The unwinding of the Cold War crackled with domestic as well as international tension. Gorbachev faced stern resistance from the army general staff. Andrei Gromyko, foreign minister from 1957 to 1985, was convinced America would run rings round Gorbachev. On the US side, CIA director Bill Casey thought no good would come out of talking to Moscow or engaging with it economically. It was the equivalent, he said, of America’s blunder of selling scrap iron to Japan shortly before the Second World War.

Service tells how Gorbachev and Reagan, despite these pressures, came close to trusting each other, how they were helped by two clear-headed foreign ministers, Eduard Shevardnadze and George Shultz. The Cold War is often compared to chess but its managed finale was more like a polite game of bridge between the four. The Reykjavik summit in 1986 was an extraordinary moment, with both sides seriously discussing the liquidation of nuclear missiles. It did not happen, much to the relief of a shaken Thatcher who said of her friend Ronnie: “I don’t believe a word of it — he’s out of touch with reality.”

Still, it became increasingly obvious to the Warsaw Pact “allies” of Moscow, that Gorbachev would not use armed force to keep the bloc in order. The age of Soviet invasion died after Reykjavik. The Warsaw Pact unravelled in the remarkable year of 1989 and by 1991, the Soviet Union, too, was finished. None of it was inevitable and no one ever imagined it would go peacefully to its grave.

That it did so was down to an extraordinary degree to Reagan, dismissed for so long as a lightweight cowboy. The National Security Decision Directive 75, signed by him in 1983, set out a real strategic purpose. The US would promote “within the narrow limits available to us” progress towards political and economic pluralism in the USSR. He wanted talks with Moscow but only on the basis of “strict reciprocity”. Unacceptable Kremlin behaviour would always incur costs. America would modernise its defences. Any sign of liberalisation in Eastern Europe would be encouraged.

That was a proper strategic vision, and it worked. Spot the difference, President Obama.

The next day I came across this, by Michael Sheridan in The Sunday Times:

We’ve just been reminded that Russians play chess. Vladimir Putin has never forgotten. Mastery of the chessboard was a source of prestige in Soviet times. Today the Russian president seems to think he is a grandmaster.

His admirers see wondrous moves: Russian warplanes in Syria, Russian flags over Sevastopol, the Ukrainian state dismembered, the Baltics off guard and the Americans at a loss. To them, Russia’s position in the world is restored.

But in chess, genius and risk-taking go hand in hand. I was reminded of that by a new film about the great Cold War match in Reykjavik between the Soviet world champion Boris Spassky and the American star Bobby Fischer.

It is called Pawn Sacrifice, a reference, for non-chess players, to the doctrine that a player sacrifices his lesser pieces without scruple in pursuit of the killer move to checkmate, or to trap, the king. We’ll come back to that.

The Chinese play a different intellectual game. It is best known in the West as go. The Chinese term for it is wei qi. It is a strategic board game, undramatic and slow.

The board is a grid, usually 19 lines by 19. Each player has 180 pieces. All are equal: no kings, queens, knights or castles here. All are equally disposable, too. The players compete by placing stones at intersections on the board. They aim to surround and capture the opponent. Rendering him harmless will do. By the end, the board is a pattern of black and white whorls. It is hard to see who’s won.

Well, I’ve long stared in bewilderment at old men playing this game in Beijing parks. And I’m no chess player. But Henry Kissinger, who knows a thing or two about game theory, has explained the two contrasting traditions. “The chess player aims for total victory,” he writes. “The wei qi player seeks relative advantage.”

If chess teaches the concept of a decisive point, he argues, wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. Instead of eliminating the enemy at stroke, the wei qi player slowly undermines his potential, occupies empty space and defeats him by strangulation.

“Where the western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasising feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection and the patient accumulation of relative advantage,” observes Kissinger.

“Rarely did Chinese leaders risk the outcome of a conflict on a single all-or-nothing clash; elaborate multiyear manoeuvres were closer to their style.”

Kissinger wrote those words in his book On China, perhaps ruefully. His great prize — Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 — does not look the awesome diplomatic feat it did at the time.

The Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar, among others, has shown that Nixon and Kissinger were played magnificently by Mao Tse-tung and the silver-tongued Zhou Enlai; that China was weaker than the Americans believed and that Mao feared an attack by the Soviet Union more than Nixon feared the quagmire of Vietnam.

Yet Nixon and Kissinger were beguiled into giving in on every one of China’s core demands. The supreme realists were outfoxed.

Chess or wei qi? The problem for Barack Obama is that he is up against both. The New York Times wrote last week of the US administration playing “a game of diplomatic poker” at the UN in New York. Poker is a game of chance. A player never sees the whole picture. That is not wholly reassuring.

For relief in a grim week for freedom and democracy, I found the chess film a tonic. Fischer is played by Tobey Maguire as a dazzling individual against the Soviet chess machine. The film’s centrepiece is Fischer making so bold a move that Spassky sees defeat is inevitable and concedes.

One wonders whether grandmaster Putin would do the same. He portrays himself as an all-or-nothing kind of guy. In fact he’s a calculator and a risk-taker at the same time. Some saw a Kremlin strategy in Ukraine. But the view in western intelligence circles was of a Putin reacting opportunistically, testing for weakness and seizing prizes where he found them.

I would not worry too much about Russia. Putin’s Syrian adventure is a throwback to the tsars, with their fetish for territory, their dreams of Constantinople and their onion-domed churches in Jerusalem. It is old-fashioned and pointless.

Far shrewder are the Chinese, who have decided that the battleground of this century is in cyberspace and that territorial ambition is best served by patient attrition of the opponent’s will.

Putin will soon find that rash moves on the global chessboard can expose you to checkmate. As for President Assad, the title of the Tobey Maguire film reminds us that the ruthless player will always sacrifice his pawns.

I am fascinated by leadership, the difference that one man or woman can make to entire nations, to the tide of history – for good and ill: Thatcher, Reagan and Gorbachev, Mandela and de Clerk, Putin, Khomeini and Obama. Netanyahu and Abbas.

The days that I was in hospital coincided with the UN General Assembly, addressed as usual by both Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu. The same rhetoric, the same stasis, each blaming the other, no movement of any sort. Unsurprisingly there has followed, as night follows day, an increase in Palestinian violence –  parents driving in the West Bank with their young family murdered in front of them, pedestrians in the Old City of Jerusalem knifed as they walked about their business ……. and  the inevitable weary Israeli responses, closure of the Old City, harsher punishments, more police.

Whether wisely or not, Putin and Iran are together creating facts on the ground in Syria – whilst running rings around the US and Europe. All awhile Israel under Bibi remains locked into the same depressing two step, going nowhere.  Cut off from any meaningful engagement with others in the region as a result, Israel increasingly looks alone, estranged from a weak Obama administration, held at a distance by its erstwhile friends in the West, whilst forces entirely outside its control rage all around.

In the short term the Russian presence in Syria, shoring up the Assad regime, may seem not unappealing to the Israel government – just so long as it does not wish to use its air force, now within range of the sophisticated long range Russian air defence systems now installed in Syria, for any purpose that Russia, and possibly its ally Iran, does not approve.

It seems that for now at least, the Israel/Palestine is a side show. Never mind the rhetoric, none of the players seems seriously interested in the Palestinians. They have much bigger concerns.  “Within every problem there lies an opportunity” wrote David Ogilvy in his seminal 1963 book “Confessions of an Advertising Man”. Others may not agree but I see this as an opportunity. Would that Israel had a leader with the vision, courage and imagination to use this opportunity to break the current impasse.

smo / London 5.10.2015

Blog 55 VJ 70 – Saturday August 15th 2015

Posted August 17, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I have just come upstairs to my study from watching the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War against Japan – VJ Day.

The ceremony in Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, the same place where the London 2012 Olympics Beach Volleyball took place, was understated, dignified, formal but intensely moving, and confidently British, in the words of one veteran “done as no one else can do it”.

When you go home,
Tell Them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

We gave our today.

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0668ybp/vj-day-70-15082015)

For me the day rounds off four happy months of being “back in Britain” which in the light of VJ 70 I now want to write about.

Among those participating in the ceremony were two Jewish friends, more or less contemporaries of ours, proudly wearing the Star of Burma Campaign Medal awarded to their fathers who had served in the British Army‘s Burma campaign.

Susie’s Uncle Moss, no longer with us, had also served as a young man and against the odds survived Japanese captivity on the Burma – Thailand  “Railway of Death”

The remembrance parade in Whitehall included two Bible readings, one each from the Old and New Testaments

From the Old:

Isiah 2 2-4

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us Walk in the light of the Lord

From the New:

John 15

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

and immediately before the National Anthem, concluded with the Priestly blessing:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.

Watching the ceremony on BBC television  left me feeling intensely proud of Britain, grateful to be to be British and part of the Jewish community which contributes so much to British national life, cognoscente of the Judeo-Christian tradition, so evident in today’s ceremony, which to this day defines so much of what Britain is.

Following six extraordinary years of being resident in Israel I returned to London at the end of March, in time to join my family at a rented house in South Devon where we celebrated both Easter and Passover. I could not believe how still so very English was this rather remote corner of Devon. We found none of the diversity which has become the hallmark of modern Britain. It was the England that I remembered from my childhood: local shops with local people selling locally produced produce, local butchers supplying meat from local farmers, no mobile phone signals, scarcely a non-white face. With weather to match -days and days of rain and blustery wind with occasional sunny spells. Still we got out, still we walked the Coast Path, still we took the ferry across the estuary to Salcombe, still we managed to sail. And at the end everyone agreed that they had a great time – and that we should book again for next year.

I am recording this because it marked my  re-entry not only into the life that I had left behind in Britain but also to a  life which, being busy with career, marriage and family, in many ways I had not experienced since my childhood.

Six weeks later I returned to Salcombe with a friend to do more sailing. We stayed in The Cottage Hotel in nearby Hope Cove, which Susie and I had last visited in the 1970’s. Still run by the same family, still the same wonderful value, still the same warm welcome and superb breakfasts and dinners.

Our second day there was General Election Day. I had voted by post. The last polls had been inconclusive. I feared the worst. With little expectation of a “good result” I decided to go to sleep without staying awake for the first results. The 10 pm exit polls were the first surprise, forecasting Conservatives well ahead of Labour with David Cameron set to lead some form of coalition or minority government. But even then no one was forecasting the Conservative majority government which greeted me the following morning. A victory which somehow set the scene on my sense of well-being at being here; a feeling not dissimilar to the feelings that I experienced during the early years of having moved to Israel and which inspired my first blog (5/12/09 “As Good as it Gets”) and its successors.

Susie and I have been back to Devon recently for some days of R&R for Susie following knee surgery. We stayed in the same ancient pub, the Masons Arms in Branscombe, http://www.masonsarms.co.uk/ that we had last visited 43 years previously with our new born daughter Sasha – that time it was I who was recovering from surgery.

Little had changed. The bathrooms were more modern, some new rooms had been created from a row of cottages, and among the staff were a number of most welcome young immigrants from various corners of Europe – Belgium, Romania, and Portugal. But what impressed us was the timelessness of it, the enduring English country side, the beach scene at nearby Beer as if a picture from a hundred years before

We had also been north. Me to Manchester on business. Susie and me to Harrogate, my home town, with a ten year old granddaughters to show her our family roots. Both times by train.

Again the sense of continuity, of timelessness, of a country that worked, of people who whilst more diverse than when I was young, generally behaved well and embraced the values that I grew up with – the values so powerfully evident in Whitehall today.

I have also been back to Israel three times, twice for Board meetings of the Water Systems company on whose Board I serve and once with our 13 year grandson and two of his school friends whom he had wanted to invite to our home in Almagor.

We had an amazing week, thanks in no small way to the son of a friend of ours who is now a professional Guide.

Within the space of a few days and not many miles, taking in and learning about

  • the origins of the state of Israel, and the place of kibbutzim and moshavim in the creation of the state
  • the Six day War (Almagor was on the front line, an important command bunker sitting immediately in from of where our house is built),
  • Safed: The Spanish Dispersion and the happening of Kabballah,
  • overlooking Hezbollah on the Lebanese border,
  • Kayaking on the River Jordan,
  • Dinner at our local Arab restaurant
  • Galilee in the time of Jesus, the sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes just along from Almagor and the Church of the Loaves and Fishes immediately below
  • the Synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus preached
  • the “Jesus boat” at Ginosar
  • boating on and swimming in the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on water
  • Beit Shan, the Roman city of the Decapolis
  • Evening horse riding on the Mount of Beatitudes
  • Acco – the Crusaders city, the history of the Crusades, the Arab souk, then a kibbutz visit
  • Camping over night before harvesting mangoes the next morning in the groves belonging to our neighbours

I am mentioning this because, despite having lived in Almagor so long, it was the assembly of this kaleidoscope of experiences in such a short space of time and distance which brought home to me why, l when I am in Almagor, I experience such a powerful feeling of being part of history, why our home there has become such a special place for all our family.

So why, you may ask, am I now back here and not there?

It’s a question which these past few months I have increasingly asked myself. And which I will now attempt to address.

Of course there is the pull of family, a force growing stronger with every year. Yet with frequent visits in both directions this of itself need not necessarily have been determinant had I truly wanted to remain in Israel and had Susie wanted to join me there, as we had originally thought would be our plan.

There is also language, the hard reality that lack of adequate Hebrew cuts one off from mainstream Israeli society and condemns one to existing in an anglophile bubble – albeit one that many find extremely comfortable.

But these are not reasons enough. The sad truth is  that with the distance which these four months have provided, I can now see that there is just too much in Israel currently with which I am increasingly uncomfortable.

People have asked me, is it the politics? I didn’t think it was. But perhaps in part it is. Just as the unexpected and immediately clear result of the British Election filled me with cautious optimism and confidence, so the unexpected result of the Israel Election, just a short time before, the six depressing week s of internecine negotiations which followed and the nature of the Government which eventually emerged, filled me with disappointment and some real anxiety for the future.

However the die for my return to London was cast well before that. Perhaps the election result was merely a reflection of something more widespread that I had been feeling, probably without really knowing what it was, but which seems clearer from a distance:

The sense of a truly wonderful country that has lost its way. Of no leadership or appallingly bad leadership. Of a country where the interest of factions, whether religious, settlers, anti-competitive business concentrations  or labour unions, have been allowed to dominate whilst the often well off centre which has created the wealth which supports the country has largely abrogated any serious involvement in politics or government. Of an apparent democracy where elected politicians are directly accountable to their party activists, if at all, rather than to those who elect them. Of a country where the universal army service which underpinned society is no longer universal. Of a country where whilst the impossible may often be achieved, and the difficult is frequently made to look easy, the 80% which should be easy and which is the stuff of daily life has become so unnecessarily difficult. Of a country which whilst paying lip service to peace finds it more comfortable to perpetuate an Occupation which, no matter how much Israel complains of double standards, the world will neither accept nor forget.

Last Shabbat Susie and I had tea in London with dear friends who like us divide their time between London and Israel, she a successful and much read columnist. We share much, each fortunate to have family and attractive and comfortable homes in London and Israel, each with involvements in both places. But not our politics, my friend’s being essentially that there is no partner for peace and that in its absence Israel has to maintain the Occupation.  Feeling compelled to explain my continued opposition to the Occupation, even in the face of Islamic State and the turmoil throughout the Middle East, the next day I wrote the following:

Driving down to Devon yesterday I had to explain to Susie where and why I differ from your position.

In summary.

Like it or not, both morally and in reality the continued Occupation must not and cannot endure. You virtually said the same yourself. “Leave, but not now”

Morally because it corrupts the values that Israel of old stood for. Morally because from where else does the deterioration in Israel public life emanate?

Realistically because the Arab world and the Western world will never accept it.

Realistically because by failing to address the issue (Netanyahu’s speciality) Israel loses any initiative, is always on the back foot, always having to react e.g. the last two Gaza wars

Remedy:

A strong Israel Government (oxymoron though that may be), perhaps a formal or informal coalition  of the centre parties, which announces and pledges that it is no longer the policy of Israel  to continue the Occupation, save for agreed land swaps and areas where settlers elect and are permitted to safely  remain within a demilitarised Palestine State.

To implement this policy Israel invites and requests the collaboration and active assistance of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the signatories of the Arab League Plan. Implementation will be dependent on the quality and effectiveness of that collaboration and the maintenance of Israel’s essential security needs.

Since these are now the same as those of the PA, the PA will need to recognise its interest in Israel maintaining military bases within Palestine for defensive purposes – similar to BAOR in W Germany and in Cyprus. Indeed Israel and the PA should sign a defence pact to underpin this.

All other issues will be negotiable, Jerusalem, compensation in lieu of actual Return to eligible Arab Refugees who become citizens of Palestine or a neighbouring state, offset by compensation for Jews forced to leave Arab lands, etc.

It may not happen like this, but if truly this were Israel’s position it would change the dynamics, the terms of the discussion, the initiative would be back in Israel’s hands.  Importantly Israel would also be “on side” with the West in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

Why am I writing this here? Because I have come to believe that the acceptance of the Occupation is symptomatic of so much that currently ails Israel. I have always admired Israel as a can do society. Just now I fear that much of what is bad in Israel, in public life and in private behaviour, happens just because it can, because it is allowed to. Too many of my Israeli friends whom I greatly admire are beginning to tell me that they fear that things have to get worse before they can get better, that as in the past it is only when facing crisis that Israel comes to its senses and discovers its true strength. If true this is very sad.

Personally I have not in any way given up on Israel. I shall continue to be there often; likewise my family. But some time back in an England that feels like home and of which I feel proud, with national values and behaviour codes with which I am aligned, feels good for the soul at the present time.

smo/ London

15.08.2015

Blog 54: 7/7 – Ten Years on

Posted July 6, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Yesterday evening Susie and I watched “A Song for Jenny” on BBC1.  Emma Watson plays the part of Julie Nicholson’s true life response to her daughter Jenny’s death in the 7th July bombing at Edgware Road tube station.

It is searing and deeply moving.  Truly a “must see” for everyone – and available on BBC iPlayer.

Yesterday a link to the undermentioned video on YouTube popped into my mailbox.

It arrived just as I was looking at the pictures of the thirty British holidaymakers shot dead in Tunisia.  It is disturbingly relevant.  I urge you to take a look – and if you cannot spare the full nine minutes, then at the very least please give it two or three minutes at the beginning and the last sixty or so seconds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q25UQ891Xzg&feature=youtu.be

Then this morning comes a report on Sky News that one of the 7/7 bombers had visited Israel for a day shortly before the April 2005 bombing at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv by two British Jihadist tourists – a fact that had not been reported to the 7/7 inquest.

When suicide bombings first started in Israel, the Israelis warned the West that what Israel was experiencing, the rest of the world would also experience.  They were right.  Only now perhaps, but so slowly, are the British people coming to realise that the Jihadist war against Jews in Israel is not confined to Israel;  that the objective of annihilating Israel is but a first step in their war against the West and its values.

As my readers know, I am not a supporter of Bibi Netanyahu – principally because I regard him as ineffectual and counter productive.  However, ten years on from the London bombings, on 7/7/2005, two weeks on from the murders in Tunisia, when viewed from London it is now easier to understand why the Israeli population recently voted in a right wing government which is not willing to give the Palestinians the benefit of any doubt.

Perhaps reminiscent of the 1930s, it feels today as if Britain is just waking up to the realisation that we may be in for a very long war to defend ourselves against Jihadist Islam – a war that we have not even begun to figure out how to conduct.

SMO

6/7/2015

Blog 53 – Tunisia

Posted July 2, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Its hard not to be deeply affected by the massacre in Tunisia, not to empathise with the “ordinary” British holiday makers from every walk of one, of all ages, from all over, caught up in the horror. Having experienced times of random civilian bombings in  Israel before the Israeli security forces found solutions, I find it  just all too sickeningly  familiar. With the uneasy thought  once more at  the back of one’s mind wondering what and who will be next.

Before the events of last week my eye was caught by an article written by former Chief Rabbi ( Lord) Jonathan Sacks “Wars are won by weapons but peace is won by ideas”.

I thought it worth sharing. But had not actually got around to doing anything about it. And I only remembered it whilst thinking about Tunisia.

My immediate reaction to Tunisia, and what happened the same day in France and Bahrain, was  a sense of frustration bordering on despair over Britain’s military retreat . How, I asked myself, could a Conservative Government, no longer shackled by coalition politics,and with Britain’s proud military  tradition, be so supine in the face of Ukraine, ISIS and Iran? For yes, I do link them together. All take note of our weakness.

My readers will know that I often been a critic of Israel’s government. But having lived in both Israel and Britain I know how much I prefer Israel’s “Don’t mess with us”approach  to the fine but empty words emanating from 10 Downing Street. Words which  without real military capability, and the will to use it, ultimately count for nothing.

So what’s to be?

In common with many I was both surprised and elated by the Conservative Election Victory. Having a go at reforming Britain’s relationship with some of the more idiotic aspects of  the EU did not look such a bad idea either.

Somehow it all now seems pretty irrelevant.

Britain is at war. Maybe we have not realised it yet. But by my simple reckoning when we face  a group of well armed, well organised and well financed fanatics whose raison d’être seems to be to attack and defeat the West and  everything we stand for, who constantly seek to murder our people wherever they can find them and too often succeed (once being too often), I call that being at war.

When our people are being murdered on the beach, when our nation is threatened as it has not been since before the fall of communism what on earth, I ask, are we doing as a country ring fencing so called Overseas Aid, (to such countries as India, which probably is not corrupt but equally does not need it and many other countries known to be utterly corrupt) at 0.7% of our national budget whilst wriggling to maintain defence spending at even 2%?

What are we doing building aircraft carriers with no aircraft to fly from them?

Why are we agonising over giving our intelligence services adequate resources and surveillance powers?

Why have we seemingly completely failed to mobilise our not inconsiderable resources to respond to the attacks that we are facing?

Surely the first task of government is to defend the nation?

Of course aircraft carriers do not defeat lone terrorists. But they can provide mobile bases for all manner of capabilities. How different might it be if we and other countries in Europe, ideally alongside a  U.S. which had recovered its self belief and also stopped retreating, were ready to take the fight to the Islamic heartland;  if we were to counter punch with everything at our disposal –  financial  restrictions, special forces perhaps even with unbadged  forces  a la Putin in Ukraine, with cyber offensives to deny commutation and use of social media, with targeted air strikes supported by intelligence forces on the ground,

How else can our will to defend our nation and defeat its attackers be taken seriously?

Which takes me back to Jonathan Sacks whose blog (reproduced below), I came upon last week  in The Times of Israel and which now strikes me as particularly germane.  Because one thing  seems clear. This war, which slowly I believe people here are understanding to be a war, will not be won by military force alone. Military force has its place, to demonstrate resolve, to harass the enemy, to put him on the defensive, but ultimately it is ideas, and also one might add, economics which prevail.

The great pretense in Britain has been that Islamic extremism has nothing to do with true Islam. That will no longer wash. Fundamentalist  political Islam is almost entirely a product of the great Shia Sunni divide which, at its heart, is ONLY  about religion.

The running down of our armed forces could be turned to advantage if it were to enable us to rearm in a way that is relevant to the battles of today and tomorrow – rather than those of yesterday. But whilst rearming and redeploying , as I am sure we must, let us not neglect the Jonathan Sacks of this world, to ensure that we win the peace.

Jonathan Sacks: Wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas

“I was with the great scholar of Islam, Prof Bernard Lewis in 2003 when someone asked him to predict what would happen in Iraq. His reply was memorable. He said, I am a historian, therefore I only make predictions about the past. What is more, I am a retired historian, so even my past is passé.

With that in mind, I make only the simplest possible prediction, that the battle against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS, and their myriad mutations, will be the defining conflict of the next generation. For obvious reasons. First, as Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom explained in their book, there is a difference between a starfish and a spider. A decapitated spider dies, but a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg. Radical political Islam is a starfish, not a spider, and though Al Qaeda and ISIS may be defeated, they will come back in other guises under other names.

Second, despite the best endeavors of the West over the past 14 years, radical political Islam is far stronger today than it was then. As Moses Naim writes in The End of Power, asymmetric warfare has increasingly delivered victory to the militarily weaker side. The terms of conflict are changing and we have not yet found an answer to this form of disruptive innovation.

Third, we are facing a phenomenon that the West has not known since the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century. When they ended in one place, they began in another, and they lasted for more than a century. The same factors present then are present now: Discontent with an existing power widely conceived to have been corrupt: then the Catholic Church, today secular nationalist regimes; Protest taking a religious form, an attempt to get back to the pristine purity of the faith as it was in the beginning; And a revolution in information technology, which allowed what would otherwise have been marginal disaffected groups to outflank all existing structures of power. Then the revolution was printing, today, YouTube, Facebook, and the other social media, whose most accomplished users are ISIS.

If this prediction has even the remotest chance of coming true, then I would argue three simple points.

First, it is not clear that we have yet obeyed Robert McNamara’s fundamental rule: understand your enemy’s psychology. As Graeme Wood makes clear in his article in The Atlantic in March this year, ISIS is a religious phenomenon through and through, as are all the movements of radical political Islam. We are not very good in the West at understanding theology, but without it we will not understand our opponents.

Second, wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas. That is what happened in the 17th century. Thinkers like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Benedict Spinoza sat and studied the Bible and came up with the five ideas that shaped the modern world: social contract, the moral limits of power, liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration, and most important of all, human rights. These began life as religious ideas, as John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural: “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

The Cold War was conceived by the West as among other things a battle of ideas, and great thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek developed new and inspiring defences of freedom. Thus far the 21st century has produced few if any new ideas, and since we are dealing with a religious conflict, they must be religious ideas, precisely as they were in the 17th century. It was for this reason I wroteNot In God’s Name to at least begin a conversation of ideas.

Lastly, if religion is part of the problem, then religion must be part of the solution. And we begin with one major advantage. Most of the world’s great faiths are on the same side today. Jews are threatened by the return of anti-Semitism. Christians are being massacred or exiled or living in fear throughout most of the Middle East. Moderate Muslims are being slaughtered by the radicals. Hindus and Sikhs feel equally threatened, not just in India but also in Europe. The Bahai are being persecuted in Iran, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Druze in Syria. If we stand together we win.

Religious leaders must be recruited and brought together as a recognised element of the global response to tyranny and terror, preferably under the aegis of the United Nations. Whether this is done in the form of Track-2 diplomacy in specific conflict zones, or under the rubric of article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or simply as a body dedicated to establishing the parameters of religious education so that we can teach the world’s children not to hate those with whom they must one day learn to live.

This is a battle we can and must win for every kind of reason, political, moral, religious and humanitarian. We live, today, in a world in which people are killing in the name of the God of life, waging war in the name of the God of peace, and practising cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. There comes a time when we, whatever our faith, have to stand and say: not in God’s name, and the sooner we do so together, the better.

This speech was delivered by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at the UK-Israel Shared Strategic Challenges Conference in Westminster, London on 22nd June 2015.” 

During World War 2 the Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine (known in Hebrew as the Yishuv) suffered under a White Paper which severely restricted Jewish immigration – at a time when because of the Nazi Holocaust it was most desperately needed. Yet it was Britain alone which held out against Nazi Germany. What should the Yishuv do? David Ben Gurion, it’s emerging leader vowed  ” to fight the White Paper as if there were no War – and fight the War (alongside the British) as if there were no White Paper”.

So I suggest with Islam. We the West, preferably with Britain in the lead, must fight violent political Islam with all means at our disposal  – and fight the battle for legitimate religion in a free society as if we were not at war.

smo / London 02/07/2015

Blog 52 – Two Elections – and a VE Day Anniversary

Posted May 12, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

My last blog “Six Years” was written shortly after the May 17 general election in Israel.  Ironically the makeup of the Government which was the outcome of that election was not finally determined until the eve of the British general election on May 7. In both cases the opinion polls were wrong.

Natanyahu’s Likud Party secured many more mandates than had been forecast, whilst Herzog’s Zionist Camp did considerably worse.  In the UK David Cameron’s Conservative Party secured a wholly unexpected majority whilst under Ed Miliband’s leadership, the Labour vote collapsed leaving the party leaderless and in disarray. There the similarities end. Having been in both counties during their respective elections, and having voted in each, I find myself inevitably comparing the experience.

On both occasions I was full of foreboding.

In Israel, notwithstanding the opinion polls, I never really believed that Netanyahu would not retain the premiership. All the polls had him way ahead as the preferred prime minister, even when his party was not. The arithmetic favoured him too – the orthodox religious parties, anathema to many on the centre left, were always his, whilst it never seemed realistic to expect the likely twelve mandates of the newly come together Arab list to line up in Government with Herzog’s Zionist Camp.

In the UK a hung parliament, with no party securing a majority, seemed all but certain. In such a scenario the surging Scottish Nationalists would hold the balance of power and, having vowed to “lock the Tories (Conservatives) out of power”, the likelihood  of left wing,  anti-Israel, bacon sandwich eating  Ed Miliband slipping into Downing Street as it were by the back door, seemed only too probable.

But in the UK this didn’t happen. Instead of the expected days of wrangling resulting in a Labour led coalition or a Conservative minority government, within 14 hours of the polls closing David Cameron was en route to Buckingham Palace to be reappointed Prime Minister heading a majority Conservative Government. Such can be the efficiency, ruthlessness even, of Britain’s first past the post, single member constituency form of representative government.

Whereas back in Israel it had taken Natanyahu six weeks of negotiations to assemble a fragile, fractious coalition of all that I, and I believe most like me, find least attractive in Israeli politics: a right wing Likud led government, with a wafer thin one seat majority. A prime minister held to ransom by the two ultra-orthodox religious parties which most of the country had been so relieved to see absent from his previous government, a populist finance minister and Bennet’s settler Jewish Home party which, although suffering rejection by the electorate, still had enough seats to extort important Ministries and committee influence with literally just hours to go before Natanyahu’s time to form a government ran out.

Being no fan of Netanyahu, on the right, nor of Ed Miliband on the left I have been pondering how it came about that the results in both countries were so different, how is it that I feel so good about what happened here Britain and so bad about what has happened in Israel?

“Well, that’s rather facile”, you may be thinking. “In Britain your favoured party won, in Israel it lost. You don’t need look any further.”

But look further, I do. I have been fascinated by the election processes themselves and the difference between the two.

In Britain Members of Parliament represent a geographic constituency to whose electors they are directly accountable. In Israel Members of the Knesset (Parliament) represent parties elected by the electorate as a whole by strict proportional representation.

MK’s depend on their parties for their place on their parties’ list and so for their seats in the Knesset. As a consequence they are accountable to no one but their party activists.

The result: The British system favours the centre and punishes extremes. Israel is the opposite. It’s system favours fragmentation where the need to build a coalition gives disproportionate power to minority parties representing disparate  factional interests- be they Sephardi or Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox  religious groups, settlers in the West Bank, Russian immigrants, or Israeli Arabs.

The surprise outcome of the British election is instructive. With 38% of the vote the centre right Conservative party achieved a majority. Labour, campaigning on rather more extreme left wing policies lost the centre and, with 31% of the vote, finished almost a hundred seats (out of a total of 650) behind. UKIP, a right wing anti immigration party with 11% of the vote gained one seat, as did the Greens with 5 %. Much has been written about the results in Scotland where with 50% of the votes in Scotland, but only 4% of the votes nationally, the Scottish National Party gained 56 seats in Westminster. This was possible because the SNP is regional, campaigning only in Scottish constituencies with an exclusively regional agenda. Had the Conservatives failed to win a majority the SNP were looking to hold Westminster to ransom, supporting it also seeking to pull the strings of a minority left leaning Labour administration. Perceived in England as deeply unattractive the fear of this appears to have played a major part in the unexpected Conservative victory. And, for all the noise, leaves the 56 SNP MP’s in Westminster virtually powerless.

I personally believe that unless and until Israel changes its electoral system to embrace single member constituencies little will improve. The centre will continue to be at the mercy of minority extremes and party rivalries.  The paralysis and unbecoming vituperation in the body politic will continue, with all that that implies. Sadly, as is all too apparent, Turkeys truly Don’t Vote for Xmas. Theoretically this time around Natanyahu could have got together with Herzog, Kahalon and Lapid, with xx Seats (out of 120) between them, to create an electoral reform government. Of course they didn’t. I often feel that it is something of a miracle, and certainly testimony to the astonishing energy and inventiveness of mainstream Israel, that the country continues to achieve and progress as it does. Sadly however, it seems that all too often this is despite rather than thanks to its government. And think what might be without the so many opportunities lost as a consequence.

Back to Britain. This weekend has also seen the celebration of the 70th Anniversary of VE Day. I watched on television the service of Thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey attended by The Queen, now nearing her 90th Birthday, Prince Philip who commanded a destroyer in the Royal Navy, her family, the newly re-elected Prime Minister and hundreds of now very elderly veterans from that time. The service was followed by a simple march past with the salute taken by the Prince of Wales and a long procession of those veterans each individually acknowledged as they filed past Prince Charles.  Part way through we were joined by our daughter Sasha, Israeli son in law Zohar and their children. They, our grandchildren 6 and 8. were full of wonderful questions. Was I alive in the War? Answer: Yes, just, I was 18 months old on VE Day but apparently old enough to exclaim “I want beer”. Where was your house? Answer: We did not have a house. My father was an officer in a Royal Artillery anti aircraft battalion sent to Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland. He was there to defend the Fleet against German air attacks. My mother, who, before I was born, smartly dressed in her Red Cross uniform drove ambulances in the Blitz, and I were able to join him. We lived in a Nissan hut, a pre fabricated structure made of corrugated iron sheets. Food was scarce. To utilise what would otherwise have gone to waste my parents kept two pigs, which to keep the gods content they called Matza and Gefilte.

Blog 52 photo

So with the election results in, VE Day marked quietly but poignantly in time honoured British fashion, I feel a strong sense of confidence and continuity, unfazed by the ” disunited United Kingdom” scare stories now running in parts of the media. The same media which was so wrong about the election and can never find anything positive to say about a Conservative government – or Israel!

Returning last week from a few days sailing in S Devon I picked up the Passover edition of the New North London Synagogue magazine, where strangely, given what I wrote at the end of my previous Blog (51) I came upon this editorial:

“News reports earlier this year, following the dreadful attacks in Paris, featured in a survey claiming to show that Jewish people living in Britain did not think they had a future here.  It is fortunate that our community boasts people with the expertise to discredit such nonsense.  The message our members put out was that we are staying because we are British.  This message got me thinking, because I think of myself as being as British as anyone I know.   I went to public school and Oxford.  I blubbed during the national anthem in the Olympic stadium and waved flags in the Albert Hall for the last night of the Proms.  I have even played cricket for the BBC, which is surely one of the most British activities imaginable.

Yet my family has a proud tradition of getting out of countries.  On my father’s side, I doubt that Isaac Reuben Ringolski, an acrobatic juggler in the circus felt particularly Russian when he fled the pogroms and came to Hull in about 1900, dropping his surname in the process.  My maternal grandmother, Erika Katzenstein, left Germany for Bradford in the mid 1930s, an act generally seen as the most intelligent thing anyone in the family has ever done.  I know that her family felt German because, after World War One, they fled from Alsace in order to avoid becoming French.  I know how German the family of her husband felt, because his father pulled strings so that his older brother Ernst could go and fight and die in World War One, even though medical reasons meant that he had originally been rejected for military service.  My mother wrote movingly about Ernst’s diaries in NNLS magazine last year.  Do I feel more British that Ernst’s father felt German?  And what would Ernst have thought about the idea that his brother’s grandson would be playing cricket for the BBC?

I was thinking about my family’s proud tradition of escaping from danger, after the dreadful attacks in Copenhagen, when the Chief Rabbi of Denmark Jair Melchior said that terrorism is no reason to flee the country.  And he’s right.  My family fled when the governments of their countries were against them.  Terrorism is a different enemy and perhaps the best response to bigotry is for the Jewish people to be represented in more areas instead of fewer.  It is harder to be prejudiced against people you know. 

Anthony Reuben”

From what I have written, now and before, my readers will understand how these words resonate with me. It feels good to be in Britain.

This said, I began writing this at home in Highgate yesterday, continued writing on an El Al plane returning to Israel today and I am finishing writing in the taxi taking me back to Almagor. I have been away close to two months. It feels a little strange  returning to my other life here. Israel – the best, the worst, where the best far outweighs the worst but perhaps with less in between than in most other places. Never dull, a land of extremes, of paradox, of often almost blinding light and profound dark, exciting, challenging, often beautiful, occasionally squalid, it is good to be back and hard to imagine not being. And in fifty years, when I am no longer here, I can imagine my grandchildren feeling and perhaps even writing much the same.

smo/10.05.2015

Blog 51 – Six Years

Posted March 23, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

It is now some six years since our Almagor home in Galilee became my principal residence. The thinking at the time was that I would lead the way, Susie would follow. In practice it didn’t quite work that way. The reasons are many, among them six gorgeous grandchildren living either in our road or around the corner from our house in London.

Never the less it has been a wonderfully enriching experience. Perhaps involving rather more travel than was ideal, Susie to Almagor, me to London and both of us to points around the globe, but that too has been great. When I left London it felt stale. But it was me that had become stale. In Almagor I was anonymous, no longer the founder of a major law firm, a creator of Langdon College, positioned in NW London society, attending  the same dinners, seeing the same plays, having the same conversations. In Almagor I was only as I appeared, judged only by how I conducted myself, by what I did or didn’t do. It was wonderfully refreshing, and surprisingly rejuvenating. Then, as Almagor became home I came to experience London more and more as a visitor, sharing the excitement of London as the global hub that it has become.

I would not have missed these years for anything. I have learned to love Israel from the inside, and if not completely as an insider then as an inside outsider. Strangely, the more I became at home in Israel the more conscious I became of my identity as a Brit. I saw, experienced and enjoyed Israel from within – but with the eyes of someone from elsewhere. I have long thought that expats in London, of whom there are now legions, enjoyed an advantage, operating from within but bringing some extra dimension from without. So I felt in Israel. It was and is a wonderful feeling.

I have seen and learned to appreciate so much in Israel that is just the best but also, and sadly increasingly, much that is the worst –  with, as I have written before, and unlike other counties, seemingly not that much in between. I have become familiar with a country of extremes, extremes of climate: summer heat and winter rain and snow, extremes of  geography: of mountains and desert, of green valleys and bare hills, of flowing rivers and dry wadis; extremes of  beauty and ugliness, of caring and brutality, compassion and inequality, of inventiveness and inefficiency, of astonishing creativity and industry and stultifying politics and bureaucracy. And, last week, extremes of national identity.

See , by way of illustration, the following extracts from of an article which appeared in last weekend’s Times of Israel :

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli liberals woke up after national elections with a demoralizing feeling: Most of the country, in a deep and possibly irreversible way, does not think like they do.

There had been a sense of urgency among moderate Israelis, and even an ounce of hope, that widespread frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s six straight years in office would lead voters to pull Israel away from what they perceive as its rightward march toward international isolation, economic inequality, and a dead end for peace with the Palestinians.

But as the results trickled in on Wednesday, they showed Likud with a shocking lead. Netanyahu called it a victory “against all odds.” The liberals’ optimism has been replaced with devastation — an infuriating belief that the masses may never understand that logic shows the current path is suicidal.

“Drink cyanide, bloody Neanderthals. You won,” award-winning Israeli author and actress Alona Kimhi wrote on her Facebook page, before erasing it as her comments became the talk of the town.

The anger was about far more than the election, reflecting a larger and more dramatic battle for the face of the country.

Israel’s founding fathers were Jews of Ashkenazi, or eastern European, descent and the ideological predecessors of the Labor Party, the main faction in the rebranded Zionist Union. The left led the country for its first three decades until Likud — heavily backed by working class Jews of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, descent — gained power in 1977

The Labor Party returned to the helm in the 1990s, leading the first efforts at peace with the Palestinians. But the Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s saw the return of hawkish rule, which in one form or another has lasted till today.

The divisions between right and left largely revolve around the question of what do with territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — and the millions of Palestinians who live there.

Parties on the left would trade the land for peace and allow the creation of a Palestinian state. They also argue that the lands are a liability, since incorporating the Palestinians as citizens would destroy Israel as a Jewish-majority state.

The right emphasizes the lands’ strategic value and biblical symbolism and pushes constantly for settling them with Jews. Its success in this endeavor has, paradoxically, put the country on a path toward being a place where Jews may no longer be a strong majority.

With more than 550,000 Israeli settlers now living in territories claimed by the Palestinians, Israeli liberals — along with the Palestinians — believe time is running out for the “two-state solution.”

“It’s a big disappointment. There was a lot of energy for change here,” said Zev Laderman, an investor in start-up companies, sitting in a boulevard cafe. “I woke up this morning to realize that I’m a minority in this country.”

The looming coalition will likely feature right-wing pro-settler and ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties. In fundamental ways, they represent the opposite of the defiantly secular Israeli liberals who are fed up with taxpayer money being pumped to West Bank Jewish settlements and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

The prime minister’s sudden turnaround toward victory took place after an 11th-hour effort to appeal to nationalist Israelis by pledging not to support an independent Palestinian state, and by warning voters of Arab citizens being bused to the polls in “droves” by left-wing organizations — comments that drew rebukes from Israeli Arabs and the White House.

Netanyahu has since tried to contain the damage from his statements — saying he remains committed to Palestinian statehood if conditions throughout the region improve — and insisting he is not a racist. But it seems unlikely that peace negotiations with the Palestinians will be high on his agenda. And the Jewish settlement of the West Bank, which enrages liberal Israelis and cements the country’s entanglement there, will likely march on.

Liberal voters perceived this week’s defeat less as the result of a poorly fought campaign than as a reflection of demographic trends and genuine public opinion in the country of 8 million..

“It doesn’t matter what kind of campaign (the left) ran,” said political blogger Tal Schneider. “There is a reality in the field. You can’t change it. It’s a nationalist public that is afraid of the Arabs.”

The day after elections, columnist Ben Caspit wrote an article in the Yediot Ahronot daily titled “Two States.” He was not referring to the left’s two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to Israel’s own cultural divide.

“Israel is split — between left and right, between Bibi and anti-Bibi, between aspirations for normalcy and aspirations for territory,” Caspit wrote, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “Two states, two styles, two world views, split once again.”
To people like me this election has been a terrible blow. My decision to return to our London home, to retain my Israel residency but to spend more time in London, was taken long before the Israel election. It is too early to know how Natanyahu will govern. But it’s hard to imagine a government composed almost entirely of nationalist, settler and extreme religious parties accomplishing much that is truly good. Now that Israel has so decisively turned its back on the values and aspirations that I and perhaps some 40% of the population hold dear, this does not feel a bad moment to spend more time with my family and friends in London.

“Will you feel safe there?” I am surprisingly often asked in Israel. Isn’t the climate in Europe bad for Jews? Is there any future for the Jewish Community in the UK? And echoing Natanyahu, Isn’t Israel the only place Jews can be safe?

With ISIS literally operating on the Border of the Golan Heights, less than 20 kilometres from our home in Almagor, it’s the flip side of those in London who ask me if I feel safe there.

Let me answer both, emphatically. In Israel I have complete faith in the effectiveness of its Defence Forces to handle anything that ISIS, or almost anyone else for that matter, chooses to throw at it. Likewise in England I have complete faith in the UK government and, more importantly UK society, to reject and ultimately defeat Islamic extremism and with that whatever assaults on the UK’s Jewish Community that it may provoke.

Frankly it’s not the Islamic extremists who worry me. It’s the Israeli nationalist and religious Right who, whilst seeking short term “security, seem committed to the long term suicide of the pluralistic democtaric Jewish country that the early Zionists thought they were building.

With regard to the UK, and especially for the benefit of my Israeli readers, allow me some words on the Community Security Trust (CST) taken from its website

“CST is a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism and related threats. CST received charitable status in 1994 and is recognised by the Police and Government as a unique model of best practice. CST provides security advice and training for Jewish communal organisations, schools and synagogues. CST secures over 600 Jewish communal buildings and approximately 1,000 communal events every year.”

Next, the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron addressing last week’s CST Annual Dinner;

You don’t just say leave it to the government. Or leave it to the police. You say “I want to do my bit. I want to take responsibility.” You epitomise not just the best of our Jewish community – but the best of Britain. Day in, day out, three thousand of you volunteer to work with the police, government and other religious and minority communities to fight hate crime and keep people safe. Your service is an inspiration to us all and on behalf of the whole country, I want to say a big thank you.

All of us have been sickened beyond words by the appalling attack in Paris. And then by the dreadful events in Copenhagen, with the murder of a young Jewish volunteer guarding the synagogue…

… At a time when once again the Jewish communities of Europe feel vulnerable and when antisemitism is at record levels here in Britain I will not stand by. I will not turn a blind eye to the threats that the community faces. If the Jewish community does not feel secure then our whole national fabric is diminished…

…We are going to fight antisemitism with everything we have got. There will be no excuses. No exceptions. No justifications. Over generations we have built something incredible in our country: a multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy – and we are not going to let anyone destroy it. Let me be clear. No disagreements on politics or policy can ever be allowed to justify racism, prejudice or extremism in any form in our society. We will not have it.

The response of CST Chairman Gerald Ronson also bears reproducing:

Prime Minister, on behalf of us all, I want to thank you for the measures you have announced tonight. After a lifetime of fighting antisemitism, I have never seen such a level of support. You have always been crystal clear on every single issue that we have raised here this evening. And, above all else, you take concrete actions that stand for Britain, for Jews in Britain, and for our shared values.

 The Jihadis will not defeat our Western society, but will we Jews run scared from this storm of extremism, terrorism, antisemitism and hatred of Israel? Well, let me tell you, the answer is no. I am British, I am Jewish and I am not running anywhere. Neither is CST, and neither should you…

… What we can do, what we must do, is to stand strong and to stop selling ourselves short. Look around you at the strength of this community here tonight. And, look at the support that we have, more partners than ever before, because this is a problem for everybody, and not just for Jews. We should refuse to be defined by antisemitism. Look at everything we have built in the last ten years the schools, the community centres, the care homes and the new synagogues…

This is not a community in crisis, actually, it is a thriving community – but it is a critical time for this community and for CST.  Every member of our proud British Jewish community has a part to play in this, by supporting CST financially, or as a volunteer, or as both…

… We stand proud. We organize. We build. We take responsibility for the next generation.

This is the Jewish community in the UK to which I also belong. A community that is proud to be British, to be Jewish and is not running anywhere.

smo 22/03.2015

A post script

Notwithstanding the Election, life in Israel goes on. Israelis are amazingly resilient. Even the most disappointed of my friends vow to carry on, to fight for the Israel that they hold dear, to find a way to overcome. And ultimately I believe that events are such that they will succeed.

As part of Life Goes On, I have been engaged these past months in my own particular project, which goes by the name Almagor House.

Almagor where we live in Israel is truly a most lovely place, nestling on a hillside above where the River Jordan enters the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) with just along the lake side, of great New Testament significance, Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount.

Our house is comfortable, with garden and terrace’s to the south, overlooking the Kinneret, to the north looking to Mount Hermon, often snow covered in winter, and across the the Jordan River to the Golan heights to the east. Log fire by night in winter, 15m heated pool, bedrooms and living areas giving directing onto the garden, shade for the warm summer, house and gardens spacious and well equipped, where visitors love to stay, Susie and I feel strongly that this is a house that should not be empty. We believe that houses are to be used, that the magic of Almagor is to be shared.

Therefore my project has been to convert Almagor House into an enterprise where, when we are not there ourselves, guests willing to pay a nightly fee to cover costs can be welcomed, with local Housekeeper on hand to meet all needs and ensure a comfortable hassle free stay; with breakfast and other catering available. Our object has been to create a home from home where visitors to Israel, perhaps used to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the beaches of Herzlia and Netanya, from time to time taking the occasional day trip to the north or south, can now experience the Galilee for real, can enjoy the quietude of a working Moshav ( Almagor’s main crop is mangoes, cattle graze the hills around), the sounds and fragrances of the countywide, the clean air and soft water, all in privacy and considerable comfort and whether for a couple if nights, a week or longer..

More details are available on:   https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/641944

If you are interested inquire though Airbnb,or, if you know me personally , please feel free to contact me direct.

smo

Blog 50 Nous Sommes Tous Charlie Hebdo ??

Posted January 10, 2015 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

By the time many of you read this President Hollande’s Unity March in the Place de la Republique in Paris, expected to attract a million people in addition to numerous European and neighbouring Leaders, will have taken place; a march intended to show “solidarity”, presumably with those massacred; a march where the speeches will no doubt affirm commitment to the principles of tolerance and multi culturism which lie at the heart of post war Europe; a “Unity” march to which Marine Le Pen, Leader of the French National Front, is conspicuously not invited.

“Nous Sommes Tous Charlie” intones the British media. Yet not one British newspaper, not one British broadcaster has dared to reproduce the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which Muslims apparently found so offensive.

Here they are
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/07/charlie-hebdo-cartoons-paris-french-newspaper-shooting_n_6429552.html

Charlie Hebdo defied political correctness. Charlie Hebdo refused to be cowed by threats from the Muslim community; notwithstanding two previous terrorist attacks and well knowing the risks Charlie Hebdo continued to publish. Defiantly, bravely, those who are left alive at Charlie Hebdo will publish again on Wednesday.
Charlie Hebdo understands what the British media have forgotten – that unrestricted free speech and satire are at the heart of a free society.

Britain, like many European countries has laws against hate speech. Laws which are rigorously enforced against anything which might smack of Islamaphobia but which apparently do not apply to what is said in mosques , madrasas ( Muslim religious seminaries) or even Muslim schools. Britain, again like many European countries, but unlike the United States (where not by coincidence the Huffington Post is published) has no laws which entrench and safeguard the right to free speech, which would render unconstitutional attempts to frighten into silence those who would criticise Islam or offend Islamic sensibilities.

One cannot live any time in Israel without being increasingly aware of the dismay and incomprehension with which Israelis view what they see as the decay of Europe. They simply cannot understand the refusal of European leaders to recognise the threat which the political Islam poses to everything which they hold dear, the political correctness (born it is true of a reaction to the events of Nazism) which prevents any recognition of the uncomfortable fact that for the first time in their history that have within their midst communities of first, second and now third generation immigrants which are home to religious leaders, many trained abroad, committed to the destruction of the very values of their host nation which have enabled their presence.

It’s an old conundrum. How do liberal societies protect theme selves against illiberal threats? The painful answer of course is that at times they have to deploy illiberal means. Ultimately, to be intolerant of intolerance is the only answer – with all that that implies.

In May 2013, in the wake of the murder of Gunner Rigby in broad daylight in a London street I published- and subsequently withdrew Blog 33 “All European Life Died in Auschwitz”
It contained an email which some of my readers found offensive, essentially because of the way in which it characterised Muslims as whole, reminiscent it was said, of the way Jews were characterised in Nazi Germany.
I agree that labels are to be avoided. And so it was that I decided to withdraw my original post – as I explained in Blog 34 “All European Life Died in Auschwitz Withdrawn”.

In the light of media reportage in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher Supermarket massacres, I revisited these blogs. I was somewhat amazed to see what I had written then – and how pertinent it is to today.
So I am reproducing them both, togeher – conscious that in so doing I am almost certainly offending political correctness and once again risking the opprobrium of some of my more liberal and loveliest friends.
However, after you have read them, I think you will see why.

Blog 33 – All European Life Died in Auschwitz

I am writing this in London, where the media are still full of the aftermath of the hacking to death in a London Street of British soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby. Understandably, his family expressed disbelief that he had survived six months of combat in Hellman Province, Afghanistan, only to die on a London street; “You don’t expect it to happen when he’s in the UK. You think they’re safe” said Rebecca, the mother of his two year old son.
As reported in The Times, during Drummer Rigby’s tour of duty, seven of his colleagues were killed, and fifteen seriously injured, his unit suffering regular attacks from the Taliban whose front line was a kilometre away. All but one of their dead was a victim of bombs rather than bullets.
I am reproducing an email, originating from Madrid, which recently found its way to my desktop. It seems particularly apposite in the aftermath of Drummer Rigby’s murder. I find myself returning to a question which has long been forming in my mind. When, if ever, will the mainstream host populations of Europe say ENOUGH ? Will the time ever come when through their legislatures they say to their Islamic immigrants “accept our traditional European culture and way of life or get out?”
“All European Life Died in Auschwitz
by Sebastian Vilar Rodrigez – Spain
I walked down the street in Barcelona, and suddenly discovered a terrible truth: Europe died in Auschwitz!
We killed six million Jews and replaced them with twenty million Muslims. In Auschwitz we burned a culture of thought, creativity and talent. We destroyed the chosen people, truly chosen because they produced great and wonderful people who changed the world.
The contribution of this people is felt in all areas of life: science, art, international trade, and above all as the conscience of the world. These are the people we burned.
And under the pretence of tolerance, and because we wanted to prove to ourselves that we were cured of the disease of racism, we opened our gates to twenty million Muslims, who brought us stupidity and ignorance, religious extremism and lack of tolerance, crime and poverty, due to an unwillingness to work and support their families with pride. They have turned our beautiful Spanish cities into the third world drowning in filth and crime. Shut up in the apartments they receive free goods and services from the government, they plan the murder and destruction of their naive hosts.
And thus, in our misery, we exchanged culture for fanatical hatred, creative skill for destructive skill, intelligence for backwardness and superstition.
We have exchanged the pursuit of peace of the Jews of Europe and their talent for hoping for a better future for their children, their determined clinging to life because life is holy for those who pursue death, for people consumed by the desire for death for themselves and others, for our children and theirs.
What a terrible mistake was made by miserable Europe.”
SMO
28/5/2013

Blog 34 All European Life Died in Auschwitz Withdrawn

A number of my readers, whose views I greatly value, have written to me to express surprise and regret that I should have given circulation to the article Europe Died at Auschwitz. Essentially they are saying that as a generalised accusation of 20 million Muslims irrespective of talent, knowledge, culture, history and back ground the article expresses similar sentiments towards Muslims as were used by the Nazis of Jews.

I had intended only that the article should illustrate an issue which has been building in my mind for some time. I turn to it below. But first I must recognise and accept the criticisms which I have received. For this reason I have removed Blog 33 in its entirety. And where by circulating it I have given offense, which was not intended and which, perhaps through lapse of fine judgement I did not anticipate, I apologise unreservedly.

So let me now turn to why the article caught my eye and, in the light of the murder in London of Gunner Lee Rigby, seemed to illustrate a concern which has been increasingly bothering me. One which in a sense is also well illustrated by the very criticisms to which I have responded.

In the light of the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, Europe has built a wonderfully tolerant and open community of nations, largely free from the nationalism and militarism which characterised the first half of the 20th Century. With help from the USA the threat from Communism was defeated without war and (despite current ills) an extraordinary super national economy has been created from the ruins of 1945. National populations have become increasingly intermingled. And there has been enormous immigration.

In general in the UK and elsewhere these immigrations have followed a traditional pattern, indeed the pattern of my own forbears when they came to England: melding into the host nation, adopting or at least accepting and respecting its mores and values whilst in varying ways over time finding how also to retain essential elements of their own religious, national or ethnic identity. Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Ugandan Asians, Jamaicans, Indian Sikhs, Chinese, all followed this pattern. Whatever their individual ethnicity, it has been at one with traditional British values and, notwithstanding inevitable complaints and grumbles, generally appreciative of and making a significant contribution to the new home which Britain provided

I cannot write with as much knowledge of continental Europe. But I was speaking last week with a senior Board colleague from Germany. I asked him about the German experience with the very large Turkish immigration which Germany experienced. He told me that, whilst there had undoubtedly been problems, very largely the Turkish immigration in Germany was following the pattern which I just described.

I am sure that very many, and no doubt a large majority in number, of Muslim immigrants throughout Europe fall in to this pattern. But I see two differences between this and previous immigrations, one relating to the immigrants themselves and the other relating to us, their host communities.

I’ll begin with the latter. For the very best of reasons, in reaction to what went before, the countries of Europe have pursued a relentless agenda to identify and then root out discrimination wherever it was manifest – in employment, sport, education, speech, and society generally. Discrimination not just on the grounds of race or ethnicity but also on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and even age has been outlawed, whilst “human rights” and ” health and safety” protecting every conceivable aspect of life have been enshrined into overriding supranational law. Not for nothing has the term Political Correctness (PC) entered our language.

Earlier this year, following a Board meeting in Dallas I had a free day before flying back. I used it to visit two amazing art galleries in nearby Fort Worth, some 75 minute drive away. For the drive back I asked the driver of a rather smart limousine which I saw waiting where I could find a taxi that would take me back to Dallas. He told me that taxis were a bit of a problem, but offered to take me for an equivalent fare. Inevitably during the journey I learned his life story. His family were originally from Pakistan. He had come to the US as a boy dragged, as he put it, by his father, a businessman in Islamabad who had suffered business setbacks and come to Texas as an economic migrant. Life had been kind, he lived comfortably, had a lovely “American” family and yet……. And yet, although he wouldn’t dream of returning, he still missed Islamabad. He visited regularly, his relatives there had good lives and with them he felt a shared a culture which he did not find in Fort Worth.

I was intrigued. He also knew something of Britain. I told him my own background. We talked of what it meant to be an immigrant, in particular of how it was to be a Muslim these days in the US and of the differences between the US and the UK. Then he said something really unexpected. “Your problem is that you took the wrong ones”. What did he mean? I asked. He explained that whereas the bulk of Pakistani immigrants to the US were, like his family, reasonably educated economic migrants from the main cities, the immigration to the UK was mainly less educated “workers” from poorer areas for whom becoming British was more of a problem.

Which brings me to the one major difference which I see between the recent Muslim immigration and previous immigrations. Political Islam. None of the previous immigrations which I have mentioned have been associated with a political agenda aimed at the host nation. This is not true of Islam. Not all Muslims of course. Almost certainly not most Muslims. But like it not, it is Muslim religious leaders (mullahs) who in the name of Islam and wielding the Koran preach hate against Britain and British values, indeed against the entire system of Judeo Christian values which underpin the West. And not just preach. Their followers wage war.

Nine Eleven in New York, the London bus and train bombs in July 2007, the Madrid train bombings in 2004, last week’s murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich were all carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam, an Islam which as practiced by the perpetrators not only justifies but even glorifies the killing of innocents – or rather does not even see them as innocents because they are part of Western nations whose policies the Islamic extremists fundamentally oppose.

What are we the host nations to do? Not of course blame all Muslims.

Unfortunately hitherto considerations of wishing at all costs to avoid stigmatising Muslims as a group seem to have prevented almost any public discussion of this phenomenon; of the phenomenon, for instance, that British youths, living in British cities in the midst of Muslim communities, attending Muslim institutions, have become so “radicalised”, as the word has it, as to commit mass murder of their fellow citizens in the name of their religion.

Centuries ago Catholics in England, though never resorting to mass murder of their fellow citizens, were perceived and burned at the stake as traitors merely for practising their religion because of its link to hostile foreigners. Thankfully we have come a long way from there. But there is an analogy.

Not many months ago The Times newspaper began an investigation into sexual grooming of underage girls in British cities. It turned out that most of the perpetrators were Muslim. This was well known to the police. But considerations of political correctness had effectively prevented prosecutions for fear of stigmatising the (Muslim) communities where grooming flourished.

I do not for one moment hold Muslims in general responsible for sexual grooming nor for what happened in New York, London or Madrid. But I do fear that if Governments do not act more effectively to recognise and then address the phenomenon that I have described above, the peoples of Europe will take matters into their own hands. The question that I sought to pose in the Blog that I have taken down is quite simply: “For how much longer will the host nations of Europe continue to tolerate immigrant communities in their cities which breed young people who, misguidedly as we see it, commit acts of what not so very long ago would have been called treason?”

My concern is that unless Muslim communities acting with Governments move to utterly repudiate and take steps to root out and expel the elements within Islam which are a breeding ground for outrages such as the murder of Gunner Rigby their hosts populations will eventually do it for them. My fear is that UKIP in the UK, last week’s riots in Sweden, even the Spanish article included in my last now withdrawn blog which some of my readers found so distasteful, are but a start; that extremism, unchecked, breeds extremism. I am as implacably opposed to right wing extremism and its sentiments as any of my readers whom I inadvertently offended. But I worry that if out of political correctness, or fear of their Muslim voters, the governments of Europe do not face the difficulty of distinguishing extreme Political Islam, and all that goes with it, from the private peaceable practice of religion within a civil society, and act to defeat it, the liberal way of life that we take for granted is in peril.

Perhaps it’s just a new manifestation of a classic dilemma. How does a liberal society protect itself from illiberal enemies without itself using illiberal means?

I have no answer. Except that a good start might be not to let political correctness prevent us from recognising that the continued existence within our society of unchecked Political Islam, (distinct from all that is fine in Islam), ultimately endangers everything that we hold dear.

SMO 30.05.2013


I now return to tomorrow’s “Unity” gathering in Paris – the one to which Marine Le Pen is not invited. One might just as well look at last week’s massive demonstration in Germany staged by Pegida – Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West, “We’re not Nazis – the politicians just left us” reports today’s London Times; to the advance of UKIP in Britain, to the advance of right parties everywhere in Europe.

In Blog 34 I expressed my fear that if “liberal” governments failed to recognise the threat from within of political Islam others less liberal would do it for them. And that’s what happening.

With extraordinary timing, Michel Houellebecq, perhaps France’s greatest and certainly most controversial living novelist, has just published “Soumission” ( Submission):

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark … and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

It’s a novel – and so unlikely. Much more likely, indeed on current poll predictions a strong probability, is Marine Le Pen succeeding Francois Hollande as President of France in 2017.

Time is short. As I write this I don’t know the message which will emanate from tomorrow’s Unity gathering in Paris. What I do know is that unless European leaders are willing to recognise political Islam as evil and begin to do whatever to do whatever it takes to “drain the swamp” (in the words of Michael Gove who, before being sacked as Education Secretary for being too uncomfortable, wanted to root out Islamic extremism in schools) of political Islam within Europe, they won’t be our leaders for too much longer.

Let’s never forget that Hitler came to power in an election.

Smo/ 10.01. 2014

Blog 49 – A Manoeuvre Too Many ?

Posted December 1, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Many of my readers will be aware of the proposed Jewish State Basic (ie constitutional) Law legislation being brought to The Knesset by Benjamin Netanyahu and the ensuing government coalition conflicts which surround it. Judging by your questions most of you are as confused by it all as I am.

I have been back in Israel over a week now, a time of cool nights, warm days of brilliant winter sunshine interspersed with days of cloud and often torrential rains. With a log tire burning inside and green everywhere outside it’s the best. Or it would be but for the background sense of malaise which when pushed it seems most people here will now admit to experiencing – and of which I wrote recently in Blog 48.

By now my readers will be well aware of my long held distaste for Prime Minister Natanyahu and my despair and incomprehension at his seeming unending domination of Israeli politics In this context I have decided to reproduce in full an op-ed written by David Horowitz, the editor of the online Times of Israel (www.timesofisrael.com ) which I just came across.
It provides a penetrating description of the situation which so disturbs me – with possibly just a glimmer of light at the end.
I commend it to you. It’s well worth the read.

smo 1st December 2014



“It’s extraordinary, the hold that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to exert over the Israeli electorate.


Things are not too good in today’s Israel. The ultra-sensitive relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in this country is even more strained than usual. There is no peace process with the Palestinians. Hamas is inflaming passions, and encouraging terrorism, over the fate of the Temple Mount, with assistance from ostensibly more moderate Palestinian voices. In Gaza, Hamas is re-arming, having defied the might of the Israeli army for 50 days this summer. Hezbollah, ten times as strong, is ready to strike from the north. Threats mount across almost every border in our entirely unstable and unpredictable neighborhood. Further afield, Iran is facing down the West with its nuclear weapons program, even as its leaders repeatedly agitate for Israel’s demise. Perceived Israeli recalcitrance on the Palestinian front is harming our ties even with our closest allies. The economy is slowing. Affordable housing is an oxymoron…

Israelis on the left blame Netanyahu for much of the morass. They argue that his refusal to halt building over the pre-1967 lines destroyed the prospects of substantive progress with Mahmoud Abbas, the last potential Palestinian partner we’re likely to see. They dismiss as empty rhetoric his talk of opportunities for building relations with Arab states that share Israel’s concerns about Iran, asserting that no such ties can flourish so long as the Palestinian conflict rages. They castigate him for placing his commitment to settlement expansion above all too many other priorities, including our crucial partnership with the United States. They argue that settlement-building has also cost Israel the consensual support of world Jewry — a terrible, unforgivable loss.

They blame him too for the deteriorating internal Jewish-Arab relationship, and highlight his planned “Jewish state” legislation as central to that decline. Just as Israel toyed unnecessarily in years past with legislation to outlaw non-Orthodox conversions — and thus to make explicit the notion that non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have no place here, a devastating delegitimation of much of the Diaspora — so, too, a “Jewish state” law, even if mildly worded, signals Arab illegitimacy in a country that had previously managed, through constructive ambiguity, to reconcile its democratic and “Jewish homeland” imperatives.

On the left, they argue that Netanyahu’s settlement-building has cost Israel the consensual support of world Jewry — a terrible, unforgivable loss

Yet Israelis on the right also blame Netanyahu for much of the morass. They say he hasn’t built enough in the settlements, hasn’t had the guts to defy the US and other international naysayers. For all the planning announcements and consequent international hullabaloo, outside Jerusalem there’s been almost a freeze, they say. Some of them wish he’d just annex parts of the West Bank already. They fume at the concessions he’s made in the cause of inevitably unsuccessful diplomatic efforts with the Palestinians, including the release of dozens of Palestinian killers from Israel’s jails. They derisively contrast his stark promises, as opposition leader, to oust Hamas, with the pusillanimous hesitancy of Operation Protective Edge. They think he’s all talk when it comes to his pledges to “stand alone” if necessary to thwart Iran.

And Israelis across the spectrum dislike his handling of the economy — the sense that Netanyahu’s Israel has embraced capitalism with too few socioeconomic safeguards; that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, rapidly.

On the right, they derisively contrast Netanyahu’s stark pledge, as opposition leader, to oust Hamas, with the pusillanimous hesitancy of Operation Protective Edge

Except here he still is, gazing down from the top of the political pyramid, deciding which strings to pull, strategizing to ensure that he remains in power — secure in the knowledge that every survey, even after all his years in office, and even amid all that criticism from all sides, shows that much of the Israeli public considers him to be the only conceivable prime minister.

How can that be? How to explain the contradiction? Most everybody is critical of him, yet few can see anyone but him in charge.

Part of the answer, plainly, lies in the paucity of alternatives — the perceived unsuitability and mediocrity of the would-be replacements. It may be that Israeli politics is so dirty that decent people steer clear of it or are spat out by it. Fresh faces rapidly come to look tarnished and weary. Remember the hope for change inspired in some quarters by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid? No, me neither.

And yet, even as Netanyahu today continues his relentless political machinations, and maintains his masterful management of the political game — savoring the polls; weighing how and when to advance the “Jewish state” law; contemplating calling early elections; reaching out to potential allies; shrinking back; sloganeering, deriding his rivals — one wonders if we are approaching a tipping point. Is there a moment at which the great, grudging Israeli consensus that Benjamin Netanyahu is the only credible prime minister simply collapses? And if so, is that moment close at hand?

At the very least, it’s a question that ought to preoccupy Netanyahu.

Even in those democracies whose laws allow it, prime ministers and presidents cannot go on and on and on. At some point, the electorate has just had enough. At some point, an issue arises where the long-serving leader so mis-leads as to puncture the aura of irreplaceability

Sure, he must think to himself, Isaac Herzog comes across as irredeemably, helplessly mild and unthreatening, no matter how tough he tries to sound. Sure, Lapid has been ground down at the Treasury, the graying face of Israel’s slowing economy. Sure, Livni’s appeal has been compromised by every single day she’s spent as the fig leaf concealing the coalition’s diplomatic intransigence. Sure, Avigdor Liberman will have a tough time broadening his appeal beyond his Russian constituency, no matter how hard he tries to shift expediently around the political spectrum. Sure, Naftali Bennett is a rookie populist whose party’s core settler supporters won’t tolerate too great a deviation from their cause. Sure, Moshe Kahlon is just the latest semi-familiar pretty face certain to crash and burn the more the electorate comes to truly know him.

All these years, Netanyahu must muse, and still there’s nobody with the strong security background, the powerful rhetorical skills, the political smarts, the experience to constitute a serious challenge.

And if, some months from now, President Rivlin charges Netanyahu with the task of forming another coalition, after another successful election performance, then the prime minister will indeed have had no cause for concern.

Nonetheless, history shows that even in those democracies whose laws allow it, prime ministers and presidents cannot go on and on and on. At some point, the electorate has just had enough. At some point, the alternative leaders, however flawed, start to look less terrifying. At some point, an issue arises where the long-serving leader so mis-leads as to puncture the aura of irreplaceability. The mighty Helmut Kohl was felled by rising unemployment. With Margaret Thatcher, it was the obscure issue of a “poll tax.” With Tony Blair, it was the war in Iraq.

Most Israelis, for their conflicting reasons, fault Netanyahu for the current state of the Palestinian conflict. Many hold him partly to blame for the high cost of living. On a relatively minor but emblematic issue, most looked askance at his remorseless effort to prevent Reuven Rivlin becoming president — behavior that seems more small-minded and nasty the more Rivlin excels in the role. But I wonder if the “Jewish state” legislation will prove to be the watershed — the issue over which the Netanyahu consensus breaks down. The point at which his narrow political interests — angling to shore up his right-wing base ahead of Likud primaries and possible general elections — are deemed to have become too detrimental to Israel’s wider interests. The gambit too far.

Israelis, like all democratic electorates, require more of their prime minister than that he be able to survive in office. However, unlike electorates in less-threatened democracies — i.e., all other democracies — they do recognize that simply keeping the country afloat, intact, amid the region’s threats, takes immense skill, and they know that some of the buffoons who lead other nations and presume to lecture ours would be quite incapable of doing so. That’s been central to Netanyahu’s enduring appeal — the track record of relative competence in the most challenging of posts in a near-impossible environment.

But ultimately, Israelis, like all electorates, also need a leadership that offers hope — hope of a better future. In Israel’s case, if the dangers posed by the region are unlikely to recede, this means hope of at least domestic harmony and socioeconomic progress. That kind of hope is in short supply right now. And Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” legislative shenanigans, stomping through the minefield of Israel’s Jewish-Arab relations, aren’t helping.

For the hitherto unassailable Netanyahu, this might just be one maneuver too many”