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.



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.

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


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.


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

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

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,


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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.

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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:

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




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.



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.



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.


Taj Palace Reception


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.


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:

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:

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.



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”.





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.





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: )

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.




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.



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.


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” ( ).

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.


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, 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


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


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.

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.



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.


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:

If you are interested inquire though Airbnb,or, if you know me personally , please feel free to contact me direct.


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

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.”

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 ( ) 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”

Blog 48 Israel Isn’t Going Anywhere

Posted November 3, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Regular readers may have noticed something of a slowdown in my writing from Israel. I am still regularly asked for my take on the current situation. But I have found myself increasingly trying to duck the question.

The truth is that the enthusiasm and optimism with which I greeted the results of the 2013 election, the one that led to the present government coalition with Yair Lapid’s fresh new Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) party seemingly in pole position, and Shas and the religious parties out in the cold, is long gone.
January 2013 seems so long ago.

Did I really believe that things were changing? That at last Israel was on the move? That there really was a chance that serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority might actually take place and lead to an agreement – the agreement the broad outlines of which everyone knew? That there really was a will to address the social injustices and imbalances within Israel which were so apparent? That the systemic concentrations and lack of competition in the economy were to be rolled back?
How naive. How little did I understand the power of the old guard, of the settler movement, of religious nationalism, of entrenched vested interests on left and right. How could I have so little appreciated how the populations of both places, Israel and The Palestinian Territories, were more comfortable with the status quo than with the uncertainties involved in changing it? How could I have so underestimated the extent to which both sides were prisoners of their own histories and rhetoric? And how did I not see the weakness of Obama and Natanyahu’s determination to stay in power at any cost.

I so much have not wanted to write this. At a time when Israel was under attack, and often shockingly misrepresented and maligned in the western media, the last thing that I was going to do was write anything negative. So I remained silent.

But for me, so much of the optimism, the sense of participating in something greater than oneself, the excitement of being in a happening place where so much change for good was possible, has evaporated, just gone away. On the surface daily life hasn’t changed. The sun still shines, not even too strongly this summer. Galilee is beautiful, biblical and evocative as ever. The mango crop was a bumper one and even the rains have come early. But underneath somehow I feel that the fun has gone out of the party.

I suppose the Gaza war was when it all became clear. I was only in Israel some of the time. But enough, and sufficiently connected when not physically present, to feel it intensely. It was all so wearyingly predictable. From the moment the three hitch hikers disappeared. (and by the way, was not hitch hiking on the West Bank at that particular time asking for trouble?) To the tit for tat murder of an Arab in the Old City of Jerusalem. To the Hamas rocket response. To the Israeli air strikes in response to the response. To the attack tunnels. To the Israeli land incursion in response to the tunnels, to the inevitable military casualties, the artillery response, and the resulting (albeit amazingly few) civilian casualties. And on and on, ceasefires declared and then broken, always by Hamas, more rockets, more airstrikes, until finally it stops – until next time.

And where were the parties at the end?
Almost exactly where they were at the beginning.
Both declared victory. Both lost.
Israel, though vilified, demonstrated remarkable strengths which are almost certainly not lost on its neighbours – the deployment of Iron Dome to neutralise rocket attacks, itself an extraordinary achievement for what is still a tiny country, the bravery, professionalism, discipline and restraint of its armed forces, the resilience of its population, the ability of its economy to function under fire almost without impact. Clearly militarily Israel isn’t going anywhere. Which, since the entire raison d’etre of Hamas is the destruction of Israel, is Hamas’ loss.
But nor is Hamas going anywhere either. Amazingly, despite the destruction and misery which Hamas has brought to Gaza, just for taking on Israel it seems more not less popular after the war than before it. Which in turn is Israel’s loss. The conflict goes on.

September, apart from a short visit to Israel, I was in London. A London in shock at the sudden prospect that the outcome of the Scottish Referendum, seen in England as a foregone conclusion, and so not really taken very seriously, could not be taken for granted at all. After over three hundred years, out of nowhere, it seemed that the United Kingdom could be no more, the Union Flag finished with; the polls were balanced on a knife edge, Sterling and shares were on the slide, the premiership of David Cameron seemed in jeopardy.

In the event, in an unprecedented 85% turnout. the silent “Better Together ” NO vote held, albeit only after the last minute intervention of Gordon Brown, the failed previous Labour Prime Minister, promising “devo max” – the agreement of all parties in Westminster to enact legislation devolving almost entire domestic autonomy, including taxation, to the Scottish parliament.

The comparison with Israel and Palestine is stark. True the issue in the UK was whether it could remain whole whilst meeting Scottish aspirations. Whereas for Israel the issue is whether it can satisfy the aspirations of the Palestinians for their own nation without undermining its security. What is striking however is the difference in approach.

For centuries England and Scotland were foes, Scotland traditionally siding with whomever was at war with England. Recent Scottish resentment of Westminster rule has its roots in that history. Logically it could well have gone the way of Ireland. That it didn’t is because the Tony Blair government was quick to recognise that this was an issue that wasn’t going to go away. I don’t recall anyone much in England welcoming the advert of the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, if indeed they noticed it at all. And then, more recently, if the Scottish Nationalists wanted a referendum on Independence well let them get on with it, said David Cameron. The Scots never needed to resort to terrorism. Perhaps having learnt the lesson of Ireland, the Westminster Government made it unnecessary. Better the ballot box than the bullet.

How on earth is this relevant to Israel/Palestine? I can hear you thinking. Has Simon completely lost it?

But think about it. Ignore Lebanon and Hizbollah, that’s for another day. Take just Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Two intifadas, the withdrawal from Gaza and two subsequent Gaza wars later, where are the parties? Answer – almost exactly where they were before. No solution in sight, only more bitter, more cynical, more settlers, the religious and nationalist extremists on both sides ever more entrenched, a third “almost intifada” simmering in Jerusalem. At the same time, and paradoxically, both Israel and Hamas are each becoming distanced from their traditional supporters, the USA and Europe in the case of Israel, Egypt and the Sunni States in the case of Hamas, as they all grow weary of the pointless, hopeless, never ending conflict.

“Bullets” may no longer work. But there is no ballot box, nothing to vote on. Meanwhile Israel and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs remain locked in unending conflict, each going nowhere, accomplishing nothing. Is this Israel’s future? For all its extraordinary achievements, is this truly the outcome of the the Zionist dream?

“Yes”, the Netanyahu Government – propped up it must be said by Bennett and Lieberman (gleefully) and Lapid and Zipi Livni ( haplessly) , seems to be saying:
“Israel is strong. Periodically we have to “mow the grass” ( ghastly expression for another Gaza war), but better the status quo which we understand than the risks and uncertainties inherent in any change. Forget initiatives. Never mind the world changing around us. Never mind the aspirations, frustrations and growing anger of the Palestinians or the anguish of Gaza. Never mind the increasingly exasperated views of Europe or even the USA on which we depend. No decision is better than any decision”.

In my Blog 42 What Now ? I wrote of David Cameron’s address to the Knesset last April. The one in which he painted a picture of what Israel and a Palestinian state could look like after an agreement, of the great prize which awaited both peoples. The one to which no one in the Knesset paid any attention.

For now Israel seems stuck. Politically, strategically, economically , religiously, socially, all around is stasis. But the world does not stand still. Events do not wait for Israel. Something sometime has to give. In the meantime, slowly but steadily, I feel the air seeping out of the Israeli balloon.

Post script.
I started writing this on Thursday. Yesterday the Israeli press carried an open letter to the Prime Minister from 100 highly respected former heads of the Israeli defence, intelligence and police services, calling on him to restart Peace Talks with the Palestinian Authority and seek a regional peace with the Sunni States.
Maybe I am not alone.

See also this link:

smo 1/11/2014

Blog 47 – Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) 2014

Posted October 7, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

As usual I was in London with my family this year to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

Forty years ago Susie and I were two among sixteen couples who began what has become the New North London Synagogue. It is now a thriving Masorti (traditional/ conservative) community some three thousand strong. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. We began giving equal recognition to women but with separate seating, men on the right, women on the left. Women were recognised for making a minyan (the minimum number of ten required for a full service) but were not called to the Reading of the Law. Some years later there was a movement to create “egalitarian” services in which women participated fully, where seating was mixed and women took part in all aspects of prayer. Initially the egalitarian services were akin to the “fringe” meetings at British political party conferences. This year for the first time the main service in the synagogue was given over to egalitarian. I believe that everyone there, including many who had never previously participated in a fully mixed service, found it extraordinarily beautiful. Traditional Judaism moving with the times, as seemingly only Masorti can. Anathema still to many. But it’s fascinating to see how the next generation of families is voting with its feet – and bringing the previous generation with them.

If only there were more signs of this in Israel.

As our Rabbi Jonathan Wittenburg remarked at the beginning of his address, this past summer, with the Gaza hostilities, has been difficult, differently in Israel and back in London, but neither comfortable. In Israel I was often asked about antisemitism in Europe generally and Britain in particular. Certainly the media hostility was uncomfortable. There were also concerns of antisemitism among the British Jewish community. Not for the first time in my life a contrarian, I held to my view that whilst there was much hostility in Britain to Israel, often seeded and generated by Israel’s Islamic enemies, I never felt that it could be said that Britain as a country was in any way antisemitic. Sure not everyone in Britain likes Jews. And undoubtably there is considerable uninformed, unjustified criticism of what Israel does. However, I continue to find Britain a remarkable, tolerant, resilient and open society of which as a British Jew I have never been more proud to belong. To understand better why, please play the following YouTube link:

I hope that I am not proved wrong. I don’t think I will be. Something which Daniel Finkelstein once wrote in The Times comes to mind, quoting his mother, a refugee from Nazi Europe “So long as the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace I am safe in Hendon”

Happy New Year.


Blog 46 – Gaza – An Asymmetrical War

Posted August 5, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Many times I have been asked what I think of what is going on. To which I have tended to reply simply, but unhelpfully, “it’s a mess”.

Too many words have been written already. Indeed it’s hard to recollect any time that such a small outbreak of hostilities has generated so much media attention – at least in the Western world. Interestingly China, Russia, much of the Far East and even much of the Arab world seem less interested.

But because I am going on holiday, and it’s some time since I last posted a blog, I thought that I would cite a couple of recent opinion pieces that particularly caught my attention.

The first, which I reproduce in full below, is very close to my personal feelings about this war.

“Simon Fink is a father of a combat soldier and made Aliya from Melbourne Australia.

I talked to my 21-year-old son who is a combat officer for the first time in a month face to face. He is out there, down south living our dreams and values. He said to me that there has not been a leader with vision since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 19 years ago. It struck me like a dagger in my heart that he was right and I was overwhelmed by the guilt of a parent who has failed to make the world a safer place for his children. I resolved to try and pull my head out of the sandy fog it has been in for far too long and challenge the current status quo.

Currently, and for many years, there has been no progress at all on the peace front. Neither have we succeeded in removing the threat of Hamas. Yitzhak Rabin said that we should fight to win a war like there is no peace and fight for peace like war is not an option. This is what we should do right now. Hamas and their ilk will never accept us and we should defeat them completely. At the same time we should commence final status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. This should be done in parallel. One is contingent on the other and there is no contradiction between the two.

On fighting the war I have no doubt that we can and should totally defeat Hamas. Thanks to our ingenuity, creativity and determination our army is one of the best trained and equipped in the world. The enemy here is clear and the threat of 100 daily missiles falling on our country is real and unacceptable. No other state would accept such a predicament. The US went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan for much less. Morally we stand against a fanatical and violent Muslim group that will never be capable of making peace. Did the US and Allies cease fire against the Japanese and Germans in the Second World War as they started to defeat their enemy and talk peace? No – they made a decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and carpet bomb Dresden killing 250,000 civilians in order to win the war sooner and save the lives of American and Allied soldiers that would otherwise die fighting all the way to Tokyo and Berlin.

We do not have that choice — ours is more about the price we are prepared to pay with our own soldiers’ lives. We can pull out now but we will only be back in a few years for the next round. The cost of acting now may be much less than what it will be in the future. We must defeat Hamas quickly and totally and from the ashes build something better for us and Gaza’s citizens. We must make sure that whatever replaces Hamas will be better than what we and Gazans have now. Here the evil you know is not better than the evil you don’t. Gaza is not Vietnam or Iraq. UNRWA has a large budget and will continue to provide social services in Gaza. Let’s put our energy and creativity into building an international coalition to replace Hamas with a responsible internationally backed security force.

What about the fight for peace? What are we doing there — because defeating Hamas means little if it doesn’t bring us closer to peace? With all our amazing capabilities and potential in the military, scientific and economic realms we have not managed to advance the peace process in 20 years. Enough is enough! If Hamas is soon to be extinct and out of the way there is no longer an excuse not to talk to Fatah. We should put everything we offered at Camp David back on the table now! Immediately! Bibi, Tzippy, Yair and Bogey should go to Ramallah now, even before we defeat Hamas, and say we want peace and prosperity for the sake of our children and grandchildren. John Kerry should go with them and write the check for the reconstruction of the Middle East and, who knows, maybe from there to the White House in another 2 years.

Finally, let me be absolutely clear that winning the war and defeating Hamas means nothing and is an empty victory not worth the loss of life if it is not accompanied by making peace with the Palestinians. The broad support for this war must be conditional on advancing the peace process. Do not send our children to die in a war that does not bring us closer to peace.”

In Blog 42 – What Now – I wrote about what would happen following the collapse of the peace process. Re-reading it, my words seem horribly prophetic

“So now what?

For now the bubble life continues. The press and othe media here seem remarkably unconcerned, with those on the right in celebratory mood. Next week Israel will celebrate Passover, the Festival of Freedom. The weather is perfect. Life is good.

And yet. And yet.

Maybe it was my imagination, but sitting in the Knesset I thought that I detected a hint of desperation in Natanyahu’s rhetoric. Dos I catch a sense that, all too late, Natanyahu has woken up to the fact that actually he really does want a deal, that Israel does need a two state solution – but he hasn’t any idea how to achieve it nor any Plan B if he fails? Rather shockingly perhaps, Abbas and the Palestinians are not playing by his rules. They really don’t seem to mind too much that an agreement isn’t going to happen, certainly not on Natanyahu’s terms, maybe not at all.

So once again, What Now?

I don’t know. I am not sure that anyone knows.

Israel is only 66 years old. Even so, in its short history there have been times of great and unforeseen shock – The Yom Kippur War, the 1983 banking and economic crisis, the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The convulsions were huge, the surprise great, the effect on confidence immense. Each time the unexpected had happened. Each time Israel was unprepared. Yet each time, almost miraculously, Israel found the strength in its institutions and the resilience of its people to respond to the challenge and emerge stronger.

Will the collapse of the Peace Talks, if that is what is happening, bring another shock in its wake? Israelis appear to think not. Israel’s economy, riding on massive natural offshore gas fields and high tech seems impregnable. The shekel is the worlds most appreciating currency. Israel’s foreign currency reserves exceed those of the UK. Never the less Israel’s is dependent on its links to the global economy like no other. The Occupation remains toxic and, although many Israelis are in denial, unacceptable to the free World. Were an even partially effective BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Boycott) Campaign to gather momentum Israel would be uniquely vulnerable.

In such a situation would Israel once again find a way to respond, finally free itself of the Occupation and so emerge the stronger?

I have to believe yes. If for no other reason than that the alternative is too horrible. As one Palestinian commentator whom I saw quoted this week put it : “We eat shit. The Israelis eat honey. If we can’t eat honey they will eat shit too”……

…So watch this space. I don’t believe that Israel is going anywhere. But neither am I sure that the present bubble can remain intact. Unfortunately perhaps, we seem to be living in interesting times.”

I didn’t believe then that the status quo was tenable. Nature abhors a vacuum. Hamas stepped into it.

Which brings me to the second piece that I would like to share. It’s a video link. It’s nearly 6 minutes but it’s really worth sticking with it until the end.

I think one has to see Israel/ Hamas as part of a much bigger picture unfolding in the Middle East. As I dictate this, news is coming in of huge battles in Lebanon/ Syria between Hizbollah and Isis.

None of us likes seeing pictures of the devastation in Gaza. Nor I believe does anyone in Israel. Given the devastation, it strikes me as something of a miracle that actual casualties(under 2000, of whom at least say a third, possibly half were combatants), even according to the Hamas count, have been so few. Of course the miracle is not a miracle. It’s a function of the enormous lengths the Israel military go to warn civilians before an attack.

But what the Israelis seem to have missed is the asymmetrical nature of the war in which Hamas is engaged, where delegitimising the international standing of Israel, and possibly even its self confidence, is a primary Hamas war aim, which has succeeded all too well.

For an example, click on the link below:

Times cartoon for Blog 46

If Israel understood this perhaps it could have fought this war differently. Iron Dome has been a game changer. Hamas rockets have been almost entirely neutralised. But although Iron Dome is a game changer, the way in which Israel has responded has scarcely changed at all. Given Israel’s ability to absorb Hamas rocket attacks, how would it have been if, initially, Israel had not responded offensively at all? If Israel, whilst massing its army on the borders, had conducted a massive PR and communications campaign seeking the demilitarisation of Hamas? If, inevitably, the world was slow to respond and the rockets continued, then what if instead of bombarding Gaza Israel, after due warning, had simply cut off water, electricity and all supplies with the message that the day the rockets stop, and attack tunnels are decommissioned, the electricity starts again.

An asymmetrical response to an asymmetrical war?


Blog 45 Ari Shavit: War Clouds over My Sons’ Future

Posted July 14, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am sending this from Paris where my wife and I are visiting with our twelve year old grandson.
Of course what is happening in Israel and Gaza has been much in our minds.
On Sunday there appeared in my e-mail a link to an article “War Clouds over my Sons Future” written for the (London) Sunday Times by My Promised Land author Ari Shavit.

Shavit writes so much better than I can. But what he writes is very much what have been feeling, some of which I hope to have reflected in recent blogs.
So, with acknowledgement to the Sunday Times I am reproducing the entirety of Shavit’s article below. I commend it to you.
Later, if you appreciate Shavit’s writing, you could do worse than pick up a copy of My Promised Land (also available in e books) to gain a brilliantly written understanding of how come Israel is where it is now.

I am due to return to Tel Aviv this coming Sunday for a few days. It is a strange prospect:

“War clouds over my Sons’ future

For many young residents of Tel Aviv the howl of sirens is new. But as Hamas and Israel are drawn into a deadly cycle of violence, they will have to get used to it
Ari Shavit Published: 13 July 2014

Israeli rockets pounded Rafah, in Gaza, on Friday Israeli rockets pounded Rafah, in Gaza, on Friday (Said Khatib)
For my 10-year-old, Michael, and my five-year-old, Daniel, it was a first. Last Monday morning, when I saw the way things were going, I went into their room and asked them to sit down. I told them that in the coming days they may hear something they have never heard before: the howl of sirens.

Do not panic, I said. Remember, Israel is strong and your home is sound and your parents are here to protect you. But when the sirens go off, you must walk down the stairs quietly to the basement and find shelter in the security room until danger has passed.

So they did. On Tuesday evening, when — for the first time — Tel Aviv and its northern suburbs were targeted by Hamas rockets, Michael and Daniel heard their first sirens and clung to me as we all went down quietly to take shelter in the security room.

Michael asked if Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile defence system, would intercept the incoming rockets. Daniel said he was afraid a missile would destroy our home.

The sheltered, semi-normal lives my boys have lived thus far were transformed. The quiet decade they were both born into was over. A new, radical and violent Middle East had shattered the serenity and security of their suburban childhood.

WHEN Michael was conceived — in late 2003 — war was raging in Iraq and suicide bombers were rattling Israel. But by the time he was born the violence had subsided. Ariel Sharon, the Israel Defence Forces, the Shin Bet (the internal security service) and the separation barrier were successful in curtailing the second intifada — the greatest prolonged terrorist offensive experienced by a democracy since the Second World War. So the past 10 years were relatively calm.

True, peace was never achieved. The Second Lebanon War (2006) and Operations Cast Lead (2008-9) and Pillar of Defence (2012) in the Gaza Strip marred the quiet intermittently. But all in all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dormant.

Fewer Israelis were victims of terrorist attacks than in previous decades. Fewer Palestinians lost their lives because of Israeli military activity than in the 1990s and the early 2000s. The anti-violence ethos of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, and the reluctance of the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to use force, Israeli-Palestinian conflict-fatigue and Israeli-Palestinian security co-ordination brought a strange calm to the Promised Land.

So ever since Michael turned five and Daniel was born in spring 2009, my sons have not been exposed to any of the dangers and fears that older Israelis have struggled with. In recent years my compatriots could really believe they lived in some sort of California.

As there were no wars, no concrete enemies, no acts of terrorism and no visible threats, people turned inward, enjoyed their individual lives and were concerned by such sane issues as the cost of living and soaring house prices.

Many of us developed an iron-dome delusion: because we felt safe and prosperous we ignored the brutality of the Middle East and the futility of occupation. We tended to overlook the fact that Tel Aviv’s high-tech revelry was surrounded by a violent, hostile region and was only dozens of miles away from the fractious West Bank and desperate Gaza.

What emerged was an astounding bubble. For nearly a decade Israelis ignored the existential challenges facing them and numbed themselves with the notion that their consumerist democracy was all about start-ups, nightclubs, restaurants and a Mediterranean dolce vita.

One did not have to pay the price of peace — because there was no war in sight. One did not have to go through the pain of ending occupation — because there was no tangible price paid for occupation. One could ignore the dramatic events in Egypt, Syria and Iraq because the Arab world seemed to be kept away by Israel’s technological superiority.

Within the shield of the Iron Dome, Israel sailed the dark stormy waters of the Middle East, oblivious to all that was happening around it and all that it was about to encounter.

The years of calm were years of opportunity. The cessation of violence could and should have been used for the launch of a new, creative and realistic peace process.

Under American leadership, Israelis and Palestinians should have created a dynamic that would lead to a two-state steady-state. As Salam Fayyad became the Palestinian prime minister last year, and as new constructive forces surfaced in the West Bank, the Americans should have initiated and co-ordinated an end to occupation (gradually) and a Palestinian process of establishing a democratic state (step by step).

The time was ripe for a courageous peace initiative that would be very different from the ones that had failed in Camp David (2000) and Annapolis (2007). But dogmas prevailed. New thinking was never introduced and fresh ideas were not implemented.

The Obama administration kept pushing for a final status deal that was not achievable. The European Union kept criticising Israel while overlooking Palestinian extremism and regional malaise. So moderate Israelis lost their respect for an international community whose concepts and ideas were totally disconnected from reality in the Middle East, while moderate Palestinians manipulated that same community in order to isolate Israel and delegitimise it.

Rather than advancing cautiously on a path towards a two-state solution that would give hope to the two traumatised peoples, Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians were bogged down by obsolete ideology, intellectual rigidity and political impotence.

They missed the golden opportunity of the relative calm and quiet of 2009-13.

A year ago John Kerry, the US secretary of state, tried to break the impasse. In July 2013 he launched an ambitious and benevolent peace initiative that was to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict by spring 2014.

But Kerry, too, was rigid, dogmatic and detached from reality. He did not grasp the depth of the cruel conflict and the implications of the Arab maelstrom.

So when his idealistic yet naive endeavour collapsed three months ago, he did not have a Plan B. He did not come up with a realistic two-state concept that would assist and lead moderates on both sides.

Angry, disillusioned and frustrated, the secretary of state returned to Washington, leaving the Middle East to its own devices and letting Israelis and Palestinians stew in their own juices.

This was a fatal mistake. As futile as it was, the old peace process was an organising principle that stabilised the shaky terrain of Israel- Palestine and prevented the eruption of violence.

Once there was no hope, no political structure and no American leadership to speak of, there was hardly any doubt what was about to occur. It was only a question of when, where and how the genie would come out of the bottle and the demons of extremism would begin to claim the lives of both Jew and Arab in the Holy Land.

The horrific killing of three Israeli teenagers by barbaric Palestinians in mid-June was the trigger that started the fire. Then came the ghastly murder of a Palestinian teenager by barbaric Israelis in early July. Both acts of terrorism had strategic consequences because of the strategic vacuum Kerry had left behind.

Abbas was truly heroic in his condemnation of terrorism. Netanyahu acted with surprising restraint and responsibility. Both the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister did their utmost to curb violence and prevent deterioration. But the extremists on both sides had the upper hand.

In the absence of an American responsible adult and a viable peace process, the destructive dynamics of the old conflict were on their side. No player wanted escalation but escalation soon became inevitable.

Once again the Israeli- Palestinian patterns of behaviour resembled a Greek tragedy. The Israeli democracy and the Gaza Third World theocracy were heading for a fatal collision.

AS my two boys experienced their first sirens in the basement of our home in the north of Tel Aviv, I was deeply saddened. There was no real danger. Contrary to Michael’s concern, Israel is much mightier than any of its hostile neighbours. Contrary to Daniel’s fears, no Hamas missile would demolish our home.

In the first days of the new campaign, Iron Dome proved to be a spectacular Israeli success; Israeli society proved yet again that once threatened, it is resilient and cohesive. Civilians remained calm because they trusted their army, their air force and their state. Yet here were my sons joining the tragic rituals of Israel’s tragic condition. Here were my children of plenty who grew up in a peaceful decade, experiencing their first war-like moments.

Apart from being sad, I was full of rage. Why did Israel’s Likud governments waste the good years that may not return? Why did moderate Palestinians not rise to the opportunity and act with courage and generosity? Why did America stick to the flawed all-or-nothing approach? Why did Europe not help the Jews and the Palestinians overcome their century-long dispute? Why did Israeli, Palestinian, American and European peaceniks not take advantage of these years of an undeclared ceasefire?

Now it may be too late. Now, as the demons of fundamentalism exalt, it will be so much more difficult to bring back sanity and dialogue and mutual understanding. For good reasons, Israelis would be more suspicious and cautious regarding any future withdrawals. For good reasons, Palestinians will be even more angry and hate-filled. Once fighting ends, both parties will be heading for the next round of violence. The tragedy will go on and on and on.

I fear the future. The two-state solution has been thrown off the tracks. The horizon of coexistence is much further away. What began last week is not only another round of Hamas-Israeli violence. It is the assault of an impoverished Middle East on the prosperous western-like Jewish democratic state.

America’s wars of the 21st century took her as far as Afghanistan but what they actually accomplished was to bring Afghanistan to Israel’s doorstep. The US crushed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, only to open the gates for Isis and other such radical sub-state forces. This is the context in which the new Israel-Gaza war should be viewed.

It is not only impoverished, desperate Palestinians who are targeting Israel’s affluent cities and way of life. It is the impoverished, desperate residents of a hopeless Middle East who are doing so. At this point in time, we are far stronger than they are. We shall prevail. But this new round of violence is a signal of what we are bound for and what we may have to confront in coming years.

It is a sombre omen of what the future might hold. The combination of poverty, despair, fanaticism and rockets is the new threat that casts a shadow over the lives of my two sons.

The unprecedented Hamas rocket offensive is also an attack of chaos on order. In the old Middle East, the Jewish state faced a constant threat of a possible invasion by the regular armies of the neighbouring Arab states. In the new Middle East, the danger is the ability of irregular forces of irregular entities to disrupt Israel’s modern order.

The Gulf wars and the Arab spring have broken down most of the Arab nation states and dispersed most of the mighty Arab armies. Iraq, Syria and Libya are pretty much gone. A new enemy has arisen: chaos.

Surrounded by failed states and ungoverned territorial expanses, Israel is threatened by the fact that so many of the hundreds of millions of Arabs living in its vicinity have no lives and no future and no benign order to rely upon.

Up until a month ago, we managed to prevent the chaos from crossing our borders and affecting our affluent, complacent civilization. For 3 ½ years, Israel remained a rock of stability in an utterly unstable environment.

But now, the rockets that prompt the sirens to howl throughout the country are bringing the disorder right into the epicentre of our orderly world.

Tel Aviv thought it had found a way to avoid the horrors of the Middle East. Tel Aviv was wrong. The economic and mental bubble it lived in has burst. So have doveish illusions that overall peace is around the corner and hawkish illusions that Israel can count on its military superiority for ever.

Gone, too, is the hedonistic illusion that we can go about our sushi-and-Nasdaq lives as if there were no Iran out there and no Hezbollah and no Hamas. We are now reminded that our California cannot be totally isolated and perfectly protected from this ailing region.

Just as previous generations of Israelis had to deal with this challenge, so will my sons’ generation. Will they succeed where we have failed? I do not know. As we climb up from the security room and observe our fine house and our green grass and the glorious summer evening, I am deeply worried.

Ari Shavit is the author of the award-winning international bestseller My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.A former paratrooper in the Israel Defence Forces, he studied philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and became chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. He is a leading newspaper and television commentator and serves on the board of the daily newspaper Haaretz


Blog 44: Barcelona

Posted June 9, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Whilst Israel’s leaders continue to preside over the slow motion train wreck that is the aftermath of the failed peace process, Susie and I are in Barcelona with one of our grand daughters. A birthday treat for her but even more for us.

Having read of the economic woes of Spain for so long, Barcelona is something of a shock. Elegant, huge, in the centre at least seemingly prosperous and thriving, culturally amazing.

We are staying in a sensibly priced three star hotel, perfectly positioned, modern, elegant, comfortable, friendly, roof terrace with tiny pool, fully booked, guests mainly European and Asian, part of a local chain. It addresses much the same market as Israel’s Atlas Hotels, which I have long admired as an exception to the rather user unfriendly atmosphere found in many of Israel’s hotel chains. But it’s more comfortable, with £ for £ more for your money. And that’s before you venture out into this amazing tourist city.

We are spending the day in the Picasso museum, where I am tapping this out on my iPhone in natural breaks, of which with a nine year old in tow there are more than usual. The Museum itself is housed in ancient buildings superbly reconstructed to create the space and light which do justice to the work within. The original collection was the gift of Picasso himself, giving a sense of his early years of which I previously had no idea. It is astonishing to see echoes of other artists, from Constable to Gustav Klimpt to Andy Warhol even, underlining how all art is interconnected. By chance a few weeks ago I had the opportunity between meetings for a whistle stop guided visit to the Prado in Madrid – my first. Never realising how much Picasso drew from Valesquez. “The Bad Artists Imitate. The Great Artists Steal” – Picasso.

barcelona blog

It’s uplifting to spend a day here, peacefully, informally, all ages, though predominantly young, peoples from all over the globe, come together to experience and celebrate one of the world’s greatest talents. There’s a noticeably universal dress from, regardless of race, nation or wealth – t shirts or singlets, shorts, jeans, trainers or less. Not a burka, Islamic beard, Jewish black hat or kippa in sight. What a relief! It’s only by their absence that one realises how oppressive and “in one’s face” these politico/religious dress codes have become.

I travelled here by train from Bergerac, where I was visiting friends. We hear so much of the problems of Europe, which when you live in Israel you might think is already virtually an Islamic Caliphate, and when you live in London an economic basket case, it’s a surprise that everything still seems to work so well. Timeless daily markets with delicious local produce. Clean, well ordered country towns and villages, benefiting from the freedom of movement and good transport and communications infrastructure which allows north Europeans to commute and so repopulate a previously dying region. I had not realised quite how stress free, inexpensive and enjoyable train travel is in Europe. Nor how well it is used.

As I was making my way by train across France, under the Pyrenees and into Spain, Queen Elizabeth was attending the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of D Day and the Normandy landings. It was a timely reminder of how far Europe has come since then, of how unimaginable then was the Europe that we take for granted and enjoy bitching about today. A Europe created by, and only sometimes despite, generations of skillful actually rather sensible and far sighted political leaders who, whatever the pressures of their domestic politics, were determined to escape from the nationalisms and xenophobias which had led Europe to such misery in the first half of the Twentieth Century (and rather longer in the USSR and it’s satellites).

Before leaving London I had downloaded a copy of Susan Cain’s Quiet. Quiet describes how in recent decades in the West, led by America, society has come to value extroverts, those who present well, look good, participate in and noticeably contribute to group activities and speak convincingly, above quieter introverts, those who are less obviously sociable, happy to plough their own furrow, avoid the limelight and work on their own.

Despite the pleasant opportunity to read undisturbed provided by my train journey I am only part way in. But enough for Quiet to have set me thinking – about how, although our children now are supposed to work and learn in small groups, much if not most really important work is done by individuals working quietly on their own or at least behind the scenes.

One of the aspects of Picasso’s work which I found most astonishing was his productivity, often painting new extraordinarily complex canvasses every day for days on end. I have no idea whether Picasso was an introvert – although somehow I cannot imagine him shining at dinner parties. But I am sure that only a loner could have produced so much of such unfailing originality.

Back momentarily to the “real” world. As I finish this Rafa Nadal has just won the French Open, a great sporting comeback, and the TV screens are carrying pictures of Pope Francis hosting Jewish, Christian and Moslem prayers for peace in The Holy Land – the politicians having noticeably failed. (The order is not mine by the way – it was the order of prayer based chronologically on the order in which they appeared).

So it is with this all in mind I retain some optimism that eventually, despite the headlines, the human spirit will yet prevail in what currently feels like a very unholy Holy Land.

Barcelona / 8.06.2014

PS Moments after I finished this I came upon the report of a speech given earlier today by Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s Yaish Atid party by whom I once placed much store.
See link below.
If I am not mistaken He seems to be arguing for much that I was advocating in my most recent Blog 43 “A Jewish State?” – and to have immediately incurred the wrath of Netanyahu as a result. Well, I suppose that of itself is a result.

Blog 43 A Jewish State?

Posted May 25, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I am surprised how often people ask me “when is your next blog?”.

To which I normally reply along the lines that blogs just come to me and when they do I write.

Last week I hosted at our home in Almagor a party of students from the School of Government and International Relations at Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul. The tours are organised by my young friend Avihu Cohen, the same Avihu who guides the annual Council of Christians and Jews tour in January, of which I have written in the past.

On their tour the students visit many areas of Israel, Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the towns and cities of the Palestinian Authority. They are generally well disposed towards Israel. All of them Muslims, many declared themselves singularly unimpressed with Prime Minister Erdogan. They came for “tea” on a Friday afternoon, so I was able to invite a number of our neighbours, two generations, among them one of my young neighbours and his girlfriend who were in a top echelon Intelligence Unit of the Israel Defence Forces. Two things of note. This was the first time that my young friends had encountered Muslims, Turks, who “spoke the same language”. They seemed quite amazed. The other was that when the Turks said that they really couldn’t understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu meant when he talked about the need to recognise Israel as a Jewish State and asked the Israelis what he meant by this. It’s a fair question – to which no-one here had an answer.

My own response was that I thought that raising the issue in the peace negotiations was another Netanyahu ploy to avoid dealing with the real issues. Personally I don’t need Abu Abbas to recognise Israel as a Jewish state for it to be so. Just recognising Israel is sufficient. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, of which more below, says it all. Nor do I want Israel to be a Jewish state if it means more influence to the religious and national religious parties here. Of which also, more later.

I wrote in my last blog, number 41, of what follows from the collapse of the peace talks.

So far, at least on the surface, the answer is “absolutely nothing”. It’s as if the peace talks had never been. Almost as if the Palestine Authority and Hamas doesn’t exist either. Life here just carries on – the Big News last week was Tel Aviv Maccabi wining the European Basket Ball Championship in Milan, this despite a prominent rabbi endearing himself to the general population by willing them to lose for playing on Shabbat. And I have to say that life here, and in Almagor especially, can be very good.

And yet. Many here confess to an underlying unease, saying things like, “I love this country, but I hate the State”, or “I love our life here, but if our children were to live abroad then I wouldn’t blame them”. Why, I ask myself, when on the surface everything seems so good, should this be?

And this is where almost certainly I am going to make myself unpopular with some of my readers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it goes back to the Occupation.

With time “to have time” in Almagor, I am able to read quite widely. In the current edition of “The New York Review of Books” there is an article by David Shulman ” Occupation: The finest Israeli Documentary” It features a 2011 film directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz “The Law in these Parts”, a 2012 film directed by Julian Bacha and Rebeka Wingert – Jammy and Max Blumenthal’s work “Goliath; Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” published in the US by Nation Books. All three of these describe aspects of the Israeli occupation, the steady erosion of Palestinian land, the use of the legal system to advance the settlement cause (how many Palestinians brought before the military courts are found not guilty – almost none), the unrelenting Judaisation of formerly Arab areas of East Jerusalem. naturally I t doesn’t make pleasant reading. Not of course that the Occupation is the worst thing going on in this region. How can it be with Syria next door?

What troubles me is that it is wrong morally. I feel that the whole country has sleepwalked into a reality from which it cannot escape. Even, the Israel Supreme Court, once so respected, has become complicit – perhaps out of the fear that if it were not, the government of Bibi Netanyahu would pass laws to emasculate it, as has several times been threatened.

At the beginning “right” was on Israel’s side. Attacked from the moment of its birth, in the face of incredible odds, without natural resources, without even water, Israel nevertheless built a state true to the principles of its Declaration of Independence, surely one of the most remarkable documents in Jewish history; a state so successful that it is a member of the OECD, a state of which it was impossible not to be proud.

Having just read though it I have decided to reproduce Israel’s Declaration of Independence in full. It’s worth reading. I have highlighted two paragraphs at the end.

ERETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma’pilim [(Hebrew) – immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.

This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.
On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.


WE DECLARE that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People’s Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People’s Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called “Israel”.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.

WE APPEAL to the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building-up of its State and to receive the State of Israel into the comity of nations.”

I find the highlighted paragraphs interesting. At birth the new state consisted only of two small barely touching triangles of land; the pre 1967 borders came only as a result of having pushed back the Arab armies which attacked on all sides. Yet even on the eve of its precarious birth note the commitment to developing the country for the benefit and upholding the rights of all inhabitants. Note also the acceptance that Erezt-Isrsel was to be shared that is implicit in the commitment to taking steps to bring about its economic union.

The Declaration of Independence also refers to the prophets. Some years ago I was asked to give a sermon in our synagogue on the occasion of my godson’s bar mitzvah. I chose as my text Micah 6:8 :

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

I find it hard to see the nation of Micah in the settlements of “Samaria and Judea”

The problem that I see with the Occupation is that what started as a project to secure Israel’s security following the astonishing defeat of the surrounding Arab armies in The Six Day War, swiftly became subsumed within the Greater Israel project, where holding the West bank until there was peace gave way to the intention to remain permanently in “Judea” and “Samaria” (the Settlers’ term for what the rest of the World calls The West Bank) for nationalistic and religious reasons. “According to G-d’s law this too is our land”

But whence comes security?

Is Israel more secure or less secure as a result of the Occupation. Most here would say “More Secure”. The threat of rockets from just three miles away from Ben Gurion Airport and the main population centres is indeed scary. But now, thanks to Iran, that the whole of Israel is notionally threatened by rockets I look at it differently. What stops attacks is Israel’s deterrent military power, the fact that it is economically strong enough to afford it, and where attacks emanate from other nation states Israel has the right in international law to defend itself. Ugly certainly. But it works.

I believe that the foundations of Israel’s security are military, economic and the moral strength of its society ; that all are inextricably connected; and that, like other nations, if Israel loses the moral compass on which it was founded, everything is weakened. (For recent examples in history look no further than the Soviet Union after it’s invasion of Afghanistan, the USA after Its invasion of Iraq, or France after the Algeria war)

People here often comment on the fact that we have a former President and Prime Minister now in jail, sometimes adding that others deserve it even more. I wrote in my last Blog of the appalling behaviour, the “balagan” as he kindly described it, when Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Knesset.

Just recently a very religious friend of mine told me of his despair at his business dealings with the Charedi (ultra-orthodox) community. “They just can’t be trusted. They don’t understand the meaning of commitments,. They do whatever they want”.

Of course I’m not suggesting that this is true of all the ultra orthodox. But this was a deeply religious person saying this. It brings to mind my wife’s comment many years ago when, in Britain, a religious Jew was pictured going to jail for fraud with his “tefillin” (phylacteries), prompting her to comment “How, if you’re truly religious, can you be going to jail for fraud? Or to put it another way, how can Judaism be Judaism if it becomes disconnected from morality?

Am I alone in seeing a connection between the decline in standards in public life and the corrosive effect of an Occupation inextricably connected to the national religious settler movement; an Occupation which converts decent young Israeli national servicemen and women into soldiers seen as oppressors by the Palestinian population over whom they have control; an Occupation which in its daily application is so dramatically at variance with the Declaration of Independence?

Does this mean that I have gone soft? That I ignore Hamas and Hezbollah? That suddenly I trust Mahmoud Abbas and his henchmen? Not at all. I trust only Israel’s strength.

However I now believe that to continue the Occupation only serves to undermine and erode that strength (The IDF has just announced no reserves training this year for budgetary reasons); that the Occupation sucks money out of the economy that is needed elsewhere – such as for education where standards are slipping, and to develop the peripheries; that the Occupation is a diversion, an excuse and a preoccupation which prevents any government from tackling the really really difficult challenges pose, for example, by the increasing discrepancy between those at the extremes, of rapidly increasing wealth or living on the state on the one hand and those in the middle, who serve in the army, do the work, pay their taxes but struggle at the end of each month to pat their mortgages or rent for ever more expensive housing on the other; or by the lack of competition in the economy; or by the Byzantine bureaucracy which sustains a culture of “protektia”, politicisation and peddling of influence which characterises so many dealings with government here at both national and local level.

I believe that to remain strong Israel must find a way to dramatically change its policy, that it needs to declare that it wishes to end the Occupation for its own sake, and start taking whatever measures it can to do so,. That it should then then offer negotiations based not on land for peace, but on how the Palestinian leadership and the surrounding Arab states can enable Israel to end the Occupation without jeopardising its security.

Pie in the sky? Maybe, maybe not. It would at least change the onus which would then be clearly on the Palestinians. If they want a state it is theirs for the taking. The settlers come back to Israel (they are needed in the Galilee) or some of them possibly even remain as citizens of Palestine with dual nationality – it has been discussed. The Israel army remains, no longer to maintain the Occupation, but in bases for as long as it is needed to secure Israel (and by extension the Palestine Government). And if there is a Palestinian State – terrorism from there becomes an act of war, to which Israel knows well how to respond.

Will it happen? Not with Israel’s present Government. Nor in the foreseeable future is change possible. But all I know to do is write. And maybe, just maybe, on the butterfly’s wings principle, if enough people here start to question conventional wisdom, then who knows? It was David Ben Gurion who said on CBS on 5th October 1956” In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”

In the meantime, I love it when I am here. I have made amazing friends. It’s not just the climate. Almagor offers a lifestyle impossible to find in England. But I’ve come to realise that so long as the Occupation persists, Israel can never really be 100% “home”. The daily disconnect between the founding principles of this amazing country and the continued Occupation is too great.

One day it will have to end. All is not lost. In the meantime……… I am with David Ben Gurion.

Blog 42. What Now?

Posted April 8, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized


I am writing this from Eilat. The weather is perfect. All our family are now in Israel. Next week we will assemble in Almagor for Seder Night (the passover meal, the last Supper of the New Testament) the first time for some years that we will have all managed to gather round the same Seder table.

But first a week of R and R in Eilat, our two daughters sharing the week with us, first one family and then the other but overlapping in the middle.
The family hotel where we booked decided not to open until tomorrow so, after a certain amount of “discussion” the Isrotel Hotel Group agreed to put us up for two nights in style their flagship 5 Star Royal Beach Hotel, hence this photo looking down the Red Sea from our bedroom balcony.

Not everyone likes Eilat. We do. Its a real holiday resort, in many ways hardly Israel ( albeit that the rather erratic service attitudes,sometimes great – truly the best breakfasts anywhere, but sometimes not so great, are a constant reminder ) but we love it for its warmth, clear sea, coral reefs, desert air, amazing sunsets.
The drive down from Almagor, at sea level overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) 214 metres below is epic, along the Jordan river, past Jericho, the lowest place on earth, alongside the Dead Sea and finally climbing back up to sea level through the Negev Desert must surely rank as one of the great drives of the world.

Entering Eilat one passes though a security barrier similar,for those who are familiar with Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport, with the barrier at the entrance to the airport complex and for those of my readers in London who remember the Irish troubles, reminiscent of the Ring Of Steel designed to protect the City of London from more bombings. The barrier, together with the Iron Dome battery of anti rocket defences which one can glimpse if you look to the right immediately after clearing the security barrier, reinforce the message that Eilat is an oasis. That no matter what is happening in adjacent Sinai or not so far away Gaza, life here exists in a glorious bubble of lovely hotels, excellent restaurants, shopping malls to suit all budgets, sun, sea and enticing beaches.

But then, a sense, all israel feels like its living in a bubble. Highway and railway construction through thw most difficult terrain proceeds at a pace and at a scale that leaves those of us familiar with the UK’s lack of infrastructure almost weeping with wonderment that such a small country can do so much. Office and high rise apartment blocks spring up in and around Tel Aviv with dizzying speed – and as I have mentioned before, new shopping malls too. The shops are full. New cars, of which there seem to be more and more, are no longer confined to the modest Korean and Japanese models which not so long ago characterised a modest country whose values still reflected its agrarian socialist origins.

So why, I ask myself, does it all feel unreal? Why, in this extraordinarily vibrant, capable, dynamic place of wondrous heritage and amazingly striking and often beautiful terrain, of bright hardworking young people often with astonishing original minds, do I feel that I am living in a country which somewhere along the way, in a way that I don’t begin to understand, has lost the plot?

I’ll begin where I left off my last blog (Blog 41 My Promised Land?) with David Cameron’s visit to the Knesset, Israel’s once admired parliament. I wondered aloud if Cameron would rise to the occasion. He did. I felt so proud. His address was widely reported. so I don’t need too report it here save to say that as an address it was superb -witty, warm, apparently sincere, appropriate and succeeding in addressing the real issues without giving offence, painting a word picture of the prize to be won of life here with a Peace Deal. Quite an achievement.

Alas, not so the Knesset. I had never been there before. We were seated in the distinguished visitors gallery, which ran in a U shape immediately above the surprising intimate chamber. There were MP”s from The House of Commons, visiting British industrialists, Ehud Barak the former israel prime Minister sitting just along the row from us. I felt in some awe to be there and, to begin with, immensely proud. But as the chamber filled, or rather failed to fill, I was shocked at the sight of the large number of empty caused by mainly the Religious and Arab opposition parties who had decided to boycott the session out of pique with the Government coalition, then by the few Religious MK’s who had bothered to turn up who rose from their seats and ostentatiously walked out as Binyamin Natanyahu rose to welcome their distinguished visitor. It got worse.

Netanyahu was literally shouted down by an Arab member of the left wing Meretz party (whose stances in the past I had often felt considerable sympathy for) and lacked either the wit to or the authority to stop him. Eventually, and after far too long, he was escorted out of the chamber. Then it was the turn of Natanyahu’s own Likud party supporters to heckle and attempt to shout down Isaac Herzog, the Leader of the Opposition, as he added his words of welcome. Not that Natanyahu and Herzog were much better, both launching into long partisan speeches trotting out their familiar positions which were wholly inappropriate to the occasion. By now I was cringing with embarrassment, wishing vainly that the all too excellent simultaneous translation might fail.

If this is how the country’s leaders behave, in the presence of one of Israel’s relatively few supporters in Europe, what does it tell us about their mentality? Do they understand anything about how they appear? Do they care about anything beyond their immediate myopic political interests? Do thy understand nothing of the importance in todays’s world of soft power, of the force of international public opinion and how it is moulded? Do they stop to think for one moment of the appalling example which they set for their own people? How many of them really care anything at all for the Peace process?

Thus it’s no wonder to me that the Peace talks have foundered. I never really believed that Natanyahu was sincere. Had he been he could behaved differently, seeking Opposition support, which was available, to counter those within his LIkud party and his coalition who went out of their way to do everything possible to torpedo any positive outcome. Israel is, for now at least, a Jewish country. Why was it necessary to have Abbas recognise this as a precondition for discussions? By definition any successful Two State outcome would have recognised Palestine as the State of the Palestinian people (whom Israel has not previously been recognised as such) and Israel as the State of the Jewish people. So what’s the issue?
And why not the offer of a settlement freeze, which would have met a key Palestinian demand, in return, e.g. for Abbas agreeing to reign in the vicious portrayal of Israel in Palestinian schools and in its media? Both measures would have build trust, unlike releasing prisoners which accomplished nothing and which anyway one would normally expect to happen after, rather than before, a deal is concluded. Maybe the last thing Natanyahu really wanted was to build trust.

So now what?

For now the bubble life continues. The press and othe media here seem remarkably unconcerned, with those on the right in celebratory mood. Next week Israel will celebrate Passover, the Festival of Freedom. The weather is perfect. Life is good.

And yet. And yet.

Maybe it was my imagination, but sitting in the Knesset I thought that I detected a hint of desperation in Natanyahu’s rhetoric. Dos I catch a sense that, all too late, Natanyahu has woken up to the fact that actually he really does want a deal, that Israel does need a two state solution – but he hasn’t any idea how to achieve it nor any Plan B if he fails? Rather shockingly perhaps, Abbas and the Palestinians are not playing by his rules. They really don’t seem to mind too much that an agreement isn’t going to happen, certainly not on Natanyahu’s terms, maybe not at all.

So once again, What Now?

I don’t know. I am not sure that anyone knows.

Israel is only 66 years old. Even so, in its short history there have been times of great and unforeseen shock – The Yom Kippur War, the 1983 banking and economic crisis, the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The convulsions were huge, the surprise great, the effect on confidence immense. Each time the unexpected had happened. Each time Israel was unprepared. Yet each time, almost miraculously, Israel found the strength in its institutions and the resilience of its people to respond to the challenge and emerge stronger.

Will the collapse of the Peace Talks, if that is what is happening, bring another shock in its wake? Israelis appear to think not. Israel’s economy, riding on massive natural offshore gas fields and high tech seems impregnable. The shekel is the worlds most appreciating currency. Israel’s foreign currency reserves exceed those of the UK. Never the less Israel’s is dependent on its links to the global economy like no other. The Occupation remains toxic and, although many Israelis are in denial, unacceptable to the free World. Were an even partially effective BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Boycott) Campaign to gather momentum Israel would be uniquely vulnerable.

In such a situation would Israel once again find a way to respond, finally free itself of the Occupation and so emerge the stronger?

I have to believe yes. If for no other reason than that the alternative is too horrible. As one Palestinian commentator whom I saw quoted this week put it : “We eat shit. The Israelis eat honey. If we can’t eat honey they will eat shit too”
But also because it’s never been wise to bet against Israel.

Finally a short coda. Whilst writing this in Eilat I have been struck by the number of (Israeli) Arab families enjoying The Royal Beach, Eilat’s best. Families, clearly Moslem judging by the mothers’ traditional dress, seemingly feeling very much at home, friendly in the lifts and at the next tables at breakfast, their children indistinguishable in and around the pool.
Also by the number of excellent and keen to please Arab staff, waiters, managers, housekeeping. Which gives the lie to the picture constantly presented by Abbas of Arabs in Israel subjugated and discriminated against. Little here is seldom quite what it may seem.

So watch this space. I don’t believe that Israel is going anywhere. But neither am I sure that the present bubble can remain intact. Unfortunately perhaps, we seem to be living in interesting times.

smo 06-08/04/2014

Blog 41 – My Promised Land?

Posted March 13, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Since returning from New Zealand and Australia I confess that I have struggled somewhat to write a next blog

From my last Blog 40, my readers may have caught a sense of our feelings for New Zealand.  As we wended our way from South to North our feelings of wonderment and joy and appreciation only grew.  But it wasn’t just the terrain, the places, the variety, the beauty, the space, the scenery _ which are the stuff of travel writers and of which I am not one.  Nor was it even the people, friendly, helpful, efficient, orderly, kind of countenance and relaxed.  Or even the cleanliness,  that everything worked, delicious food, amazing wine. Or that on local television The News and the Sports News seemed to be one and the same. What really surprised and impressed me was the sense of a country that has really got its act together for the benefit not only of its people – and where visitors are genuinely welcome.  A country where every little town had its spotless public toilet, I- centre (information) and communal gardens.  A country where government somehow seemed to work for rather than against its people.  Where speed limit signs replaced road bumps because, amazingly, everyone keeps to the speed limit – 50K maximum in town, 100K on highways.  During the summer season the police were even running a well-publicised road safety campaign in which as little as 4 kilometres over the limit produced an automatic fine and points –  efficiently but courteously enforced  by police cars with forward facing radar guns,  as I found to my cost  And it worked.  Everywhere cars just observed the limit. And because they did so did we. A country of simple courtesies – like 10 minute parking bays outside local corner convenience stores in areas where otherwise daytime parking was prohibited.

Sydney, NSW, where we spent eight nights on our way back was, in its way, equally astonishing. We hadn’t been for over 20 years.  It’s grown up, sophisticated, vibrant, culturally diverse, immensely prosperous, where everyone seemed pleased to be.

I was struck by the diversity of the populations of both New Zealand and Australia.  Noticeable was how quickly immigrants became and identified themselves as Kiwis or Australians, even the many young Brits whom we met.  Akin to my impression of Canada last year, but different from the UK where, except during the Olympics, it’s not clear any more who feels British, certainly not even the Scots.

Returning to Israel was a shock. I knew it would be. I thought that I was prepared for it. But I confess to having found the difference from New Zealand and Sydney more disturbing than I could possibly have anticipated.  All the attractive things of Israel are still here: so much geographical and topographic diversity in such a small space; the clear light and a mostly wonderful climate, especially in winter; a new nation built in biblical lands, the energy and creativity of its people.  But with new “southern hemisphere eyes” I also see  a people seemingly stuck in their respective narratives, increasingly unable or unwilling to listen to the narrative of others, often even to recognise that it exists,  living out in their daily lives the dialogue of the deaf.  Israel is a strange land of contradictions.  Wonderful and frustrating all at the same time.  Take the economy, the shekel remains among the world’s strongest performing currency, if not actually the strongest.  Growth around 3 % continues year on year.  Building is everywhere: roads, railways (though not in Tel Aviv where an Undergound is so badly needed) tower blocks of offices and luxury flats, shopping malls.  Sea gas is now on stream, desalination ensures that, despite a dry winter, there is no shortage of water. The roads are full and the shopping malls even fuller.  But the price of goods and services is unbelievably high, exceeding almost everywhere, whilst salaries generally remain low.  The ports, the electricity company, the water company remain in the public sector and unreformed.  The banks and supermarkets have the population in their grip, with no concept of service and little evidence of any real competition.  The ultra-orthodox and national religious together “own” religion.  And yet, despite all this, life goes on, diets are healthy, life expectancy exceeds that of the UK, young people do their army service, study, have their families, complain about the cost of housing but generally stay.

The peace process is doomed.   I have come to the conclusion that neither side really wants it.  Yes, they say they do and I believe that the great majority of Israelis really believe that they do.  But traumatised by the Holocaust or expulsions from Arab lands, and constantly attacked, Israel’s first concern is Never Again, making it hard to impossible to envision a different future.   The Palestinians seem equally unable to escape their rhetoric, the narrative of being victims at the hands of colonial usurpers who can never be accepted. .  Mahmoud Abass scarecely even pays lip service to doing a deal these days, every speech being a rejection of anything even half sensible that the Americans or the Israelis suggest.

My readers will know that I am no admirer of Binyamin Netanyahu; also that I believe that very possibly there was a time, after Arafat, when a deal could have been done, but Netanyahu wasn’t interested.  Now however, the boot seems to be on the other foot.  For the first time I feel that it is the Palestinians who are the problem.  True, the idiocy of poking them in the eye with the settlements has not helped.  But if they can’t even accept Israel as a Jewish state, when there are so many Islamic states around the world, there really doesn’t seem to be a starting point.

Since I began writing this an email popped into my inbox inviting me to a special session of the Knesset (Israel Parliament) on Wednesday which will be addressed by Prime Minister David Cameron MP.  I’m delighted to be able to go. Strangely  I have never even set foot in the Knesset so it’s rather special to do so to hear “my״ Prime Minister address “my” parliament. I have absolutely no idea whether or not  it will be more than the usual platitudes and veiled criticisms that seem the norm these days. I believe that  David Cameron has it in him to rise to the occasion. Hopefully he will.

So what now?  I suppose that I must admit that some of the romance of living here is wearing off.  Probably Israel is in for some difficult days as Obama seems weak and Putin strong.  But I’m sure that life will go on, no doubt much as it always has, but possibly with less optimism and fun, qualities so abundant Down Under.

Whilst in Sydney I picked up a new book by Ari Shavit “My Promised Land”, which is now doing the rounds to considerable acclaim.  Everyone who has read it tells me that it is superb.  I have it sitting here ready to read.  Of course I could not resist a look at the end where I found these words with which I will also finish:

We probably had to come and when we came here, we performed wonders.  For better or worse, we did the unimaginable.  Our play was the most extravagant of modern plays.  The drama was breathtaking.  But only the end will properly put the beginning into perspective.  Only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcame the tragic decree or were overcome by it. 

There will be no Utopia here, Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be, nor will it be Europe-away-from-Europe.  There will be no London here, no Paris, no Vienna but what has evolved in this land is not to be dismissed.  A series of great revolts has created here a truly free society that is alive and kicking and fascinating. This free society is creative and passionate and frenzied.  It gives the ones living here a unique quality of life: warmth, directness, openness.  Yet, we are orphans.  We have no king and no father.  We have no coherent identity and no continuous past.  In a sense we have no civic culture.  Our grace is the semi barbaric grace of the wild ones.  It is the youthful grace of the unbound and the uncouth.  We respect no past and no future and no authority.  We are irreverent.  We are deeply anarchic.  And yet, because we are all alone in this world, we stick together.  Because we are orphans, we are brothers in arms and in fate.

There was hope for peace, but there will be no peace here, not soon.  There was hope for quiet, but there will be no quiet here.  Not in this generation.  The foundations of the home we founded are somewhat shaky, repeating earthquakes rattle it.  So what we really have in this land is an ongoing adventure.  An odyssey.  The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation.  What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind.  What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.  The adrenalin rush of living dangerously, living lustfully, living in the extreme.  If a Vesuvius-like  volcano were to erupt tonight and end our Pompeii this is what it would petrify.  A living people.  People that have come from death and were surrounded by death but who nevertheless put up a spectacular spectacle of life.  People who danced until the very end”.

I can’t write like Shavit.  But he speaks to me.  And in these words I guess he describes what it is that brings and keeps me here and why, despite the contradictions, frustrations and disappointments, being here has made this third stage of my life so extraordinarily and unexpectedly alive.

SMO 11th March 2013

Blog 40 New Zealand (Rain Forest)

Posted January 3, 2014 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Whilst in New Zealand I received an e mail from our daughter Sasha in London.

When I read it, deep in South Island NZ where we had shortly before emerged from the Milford Track ( see photo) I thought it

a. was wonderfully written and

b. somehow said something about family life today, the sort of thing Katherine Whitehorn ( for those long in the tooth who might remember her writing in the Observer) might once have written

so I asked Sash if I might publish it? She said yes, why not?

We learned why rain forests are so called

We learned why rain forests are so called

Sasha’s e mail (in which the photo above is the photo referred to and “spar killing Rav” should have said ” sparkling Rav 4):
Spell check is so funny. I love the idea of a ‘spar killing’ Rav! Are u enjoying it?
Just seen one or two  of the pics. Looks too beautiful to be true! I think it’s absolutely wonderful that you are both doing this trip. Kids saw pic of you two in your rainforest gear. They thought mum looked weird and you looked good in your attire. Perhaps it was mum’s headgear that did it? Anyway I thought she looked like me!!! Strong family genes, as my friend Angie always says!
Boxing Day was super and there was soooo much food. Turkey turned out perfect with proper gravy (v proud of that!) no stuffing but 2 alternative main courses, 4 types of Veg and potato dauphinoise. Everyone brought something. We feasted on mulled wine, champagne, red wine, white wine, lemon water, green tea, (defrosted) leftovers from Dad’s tea party, panettone, smoked salmon, cheese and crackers. Kids had their own menu and all behaved perfectly – all nine of them (Luke joined, last minute) – and everyone stayed late.
 Just today I woke up with first threat of a cold. Z back at work, but let me sleep till 8am 🙂 4 kids this afternoon (Jasmine came) still no Domi and Gil now with heavy cold and conjunctivitis. So of course, what do I do? Deep clean the mildew in our bathroom, sort out the clutter in our bedroom, put my summer clothes into storage (finally!) change Gil’s (gunky) sheets and do the laundry.
Then finish organising the garden (repositioning the bench, plant pots, bikes, playhouse and toys) while Gil slides around in the deep mud created by the winning combination of landscaping in Winter and December storms, and announces that his dirty car needs cleaning.
Gil then decides his wellies are too muddy to wear and marches inside to get his shoes instead (so he can wear clean shoes to go back into the mud). I follow quickly but not quickly enough and while clearing up the mud across nearly the whole of downstairs, hear strange noises from the upstairs bathroom from which I discover I have been locked out. I demand entry. Ella opens the door and moves like lightening behind it, cowering in the corner. Jasmine looks nervous and Ori stands in his boxers by the sink where an alarmingly sharp pair of scissors lies ready, with a tennis ball-sized lump of slime goo adhered to his  head. Mummy sends Jasmine home immediately and spends the next 40 mins picking/pulling/washing/combing slime out of her son’s beautiful long hair, desperate not to have to cut it all off to 1cm length. Awful. Somehow Ella knew exactly how to get the slime out and following her instructions and some added improvisation from the victim including some time fully submerged in the bath and half a bottle of shampoo, we came out victorious and the slime, plus a few clumps of blondish hair, is consigned to the bin. Ori now has the cleanest hair I’ve ever seen.
Last time I EVER buy goo.
Somehow Ella recovered from her punishment and early departure of BFF to tell me I’m the best mum in the world. Go figure, as they say in the US.
Finally the kids go to bed, stomachs filled, bodies washed, teeth brushed, stories read, maths marked, milk drunk, tea slurped, eyedrops applied, noses blown, music and stories playing, night lights glowing, towels hung, bathroom cleaned, bedrooms tidied… Zo, who got home from work rather later than anticipated and who has just said his Lila tovs to the kids, finishes hanging the laundry and chops salad while I straighten duvets and turn out lights, then says he can’t find the remote for Sky and please can I come downstairs now and look for it.
Only then do I dissolve.
But I find the remote in the cushions and one episode of Downton later and harmony restored, the kids are sleeping peacefully and Mummy is soaking busily and writerly (and now somewhat coldly) in the bath sending love across the world to beautiful NZ from blustery London.
Staycation indeed!

Sent from my iPhone.

Please excuse any brevity/typos
By the way I do realise that my Blog may seem to have changed direction. Perhaps so have I. Turned off by the numbingly predictable and sterile politics of both Israel and its Palestinian so called peace partner, I find myself increasingly a. alienated from the whole sorry business whilst b. delighting in the simple (and not so simple) pleasures of whatever life remains to me – family, friendships, some business activity where I can be useful, physical activity and trying to keep fit enough to enjoy it, exploring the planet, near and far from home, learning to cook, the list is endless. What a delight to feel this way as I start another decade.  And since this strange Blog started life as reflection of what I was was up to in Israel and then seems to have taken on  a life of its own, I thought indeed why not come clean and confess.
These feelings were both heightened but put into stark relief when I read on the way here that my former client and chum Alan McKeowan, whom I had not seen the some time but always enjoyed acting for and spending time with when he was in London, had succumbed to prostate cancer in Los Angeles at the appallingly young age of 67.
New Zealand is having a massive impact. No wonder so may Israelis rave about it. What only 4.2 million people seem to have accomplished here is almost shocking, so far removed from the sheep asleep place I learned about in my formamtive years. Well ordered, well governed, this comes through from the moment of arrival when my hiking boots, which I thought that I had cleaned, were removed for re cleaning by the quarantine inspectors with such grace and charm.                      The same purposeful but cheerful charm with which I was pulled over by an efficient police car which had clocked my speed infraction in town with a forward facing radar, who whilst almost  reluctantly issued me a speeding ticket explained that at holiday times the tolerance limit was 4km and nothing to be said or done that could alter that. How sensible. And low and behold the traffic really was crawling through town. And it’s safe to cross the road.

The cheerful, warm, confident and  helpful welcome here that seems to be a hallmark of New Zealand is SUPERLATIVE. It is so prevalent and universal that it just  has to be sincere. And there’s (almost) no tipping! So much so that on the very few occasions when it’s absent, or at least not manifest, one finds oneself noticing and commenting to ones travel companion.

On which happy note let me wish my readers a Happy Healthy and Welcoming 2014!

smo 3/01/2014

Blog 39 – Seven Days and Seven Decades

Posted December 17, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

This will be a short record of seven rather special days …….. which began in Almagor last Tuesday.  My last day there until February.  It felt cold.  I hadn’t expected to, but I put on the heating.  It was cold.  5 degrees C when I checked, and heading down.  No wonder I felt chilly.  This was unprecedented.  But the precursor of the storms, of the cold front, snows, wind, rain which attacked Israel and its surrounds.  Inconvenience and beautiful snowscapes in Israel.  Misery and starvation just across the border in Syria.

Wednesday, Thursday  I was right up on the Northern border with Lebanon, at the Hagoshrim Country Hotel.  This is where Amiad Water Systems had its annual two day Board Meeting including meetings with managers from Amiad around the globe.  We started at 8am with an Audit Committee and finished late that evening with an informal dinner.  Quite draining but, after some sleep, the next morning it felt exhilarating.  A small company trying to do so much is inevitably stretched and with challenges.  But from my personal perspective it’s quite wonderful to feel so engaged and, as an active non exec, Chairman of the Audit Committee, member of the Remuneration Committee etc, feeling able to make some difference.

Thursday afternoon down to Herzliya.  And that evening a meeting in Ra’anana with a nascent “Young UJIA in Israel”.  A get together with high achieving young Brits, in their thirties and forties, who have chosen to make their lives in Israel, but interested in connecting with some of the good work which the Jewish community is doing in Galilee – almost exclusively in education.  More on this another time.

Friday morning, December 13th, Jerusalem was snowstruck.  Happily my BA plane was due to take off at 7.30. Shortly after that, the airport closed for a while, but we got away. Just as well really.   Friday was my birthday.  A big one.   And I was returning home for, although I didn’t know it, a weekend of amazing celebration, concluding with a lunchtime event at home the invitation  for which looked like this:


Friday evening with the family and dear friends.  Saturday to synagogue, lunch at home, again with family and some friends and then, after some good wine, a much needed catch up on my sleep. Sunday dawned dry and clear, time enough for a gentle jog in Highgate Woods.  Our home in Highgate had been transformed.  Susie and our daughters Sasha and Genevieve had got together to create a remarkable lunchtime rejoicing.  I hadn’t been privy to any of it, bar sight of (part of) the invitation itself, and nor was I privy to exactly who was coming. It was an amazing day and the reactions so beautiful that I feel impelled to include in this edition an edited version of the words which I spoke – which are something of a life view.






Three Score Years and Ten it says in the Bible.                        

I am just so relieved to have got this far   –    and delighted that each one of you is here to share this with me,  especially the many of you who have travelled to London just for this.

Thank you for being you.    Thank you so much for being here today.

And so with this in mind I am going to ask you to stand and drink a toast.    A toast which in one word encompasses all that during these past decades I have come to treasure and to hold most dear.   That toast is to FRIENDSHIP!”

So Seasons Greetings to my readers, thank you for your ongoing interest and support, and may 2014 bring better things to Israel’s troubled region.

SMO 17/12/13

Blog 38 – Is Israel Stuck?

Posted October 31, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I feel that owe my readers if not an apology at least an explanation for the rather long hiatus since my last blog.

I titled it The Canadian, Blog 37 Part 1, a piece ostensibly about a train ride, fully intending to continue. But I guess Susie and I were having too much fun and it just did not happen.

Since returning life has remained enjoyable but somewhat exhaustingly full on, split between London, Almagor and Herzlia, with a knee arthroscopy, done this time in London, along the way. And now I am starting writing this on another BA flight heading back to TLV and Almagor to join up with one of our London families out for English half term school holidays. A happy prospect.

Still, why, I have been asking myself and you may even be wondering, have I been so long with my next blog?

The truth is that I have found coming back to Israel after summer in Canada and London, but especially Canada, surprisingly and strangely perturbing. At first I thought it must have been the huge contrast between Canada and Israel in size, climate and geography. But eventually I realised that wasn’t it. It wasn’t the difference in size that was troubling me. It was equally the enormous contrast in culture and atmosphere.

Over the years I have been many times to Canada. Indeed when things in the UK looked particularly bleak in the Seventies I even looked at re qualifying as a solicitor in Toronto and moving there with my young family. For many years Canada used to present as something of a second class USA, very much the poor relation perpetually looking over the border, attempting more often than not unsuccessfully, to hold at bay the domination of its economy by American business and struggling to create a national identity that was distinctly Canadian – an enterprise not helped by the rise of the extreme separatist Partie Quebecois in Quebec.

Crossing Canada by train I picked up  “The Big Shift: The Seismic Change In Canadian Politics, Business, And Culture And What It Means For Our Future” written earlier this year by two Canadian journalists Darrel Bricker and John Ibbotson. It was an easy and compelling read, telling of the huge social, political and economic changes taking place beneath the Canadian surface; of how the admission of 250,000 migrants, mainly young, educated and often Asian, the equivalent of a new Toronto every ten years, is tilting Canada westwards; of the political ascendancy of energy and growing  population rich Provinces  to the West at the expense of Quebec, the Eastern Provinces, and the traditional Ontario based Liberal establishment; of the social and economic impact of thousands of  hard working but socially more conservative new Canadians.

Coming into Canada from the US you immediately notice the difference. Immigration is effective but also welcoming. Free Wi-Fi is provided throughout the airport as a public service. Driving out of town one notices the welcome absence of the billboards which disfigure the USA roadside, local communities and attractions being advertised by a uniform system of unobtrusive signs. Even the Canadian Dollar, for so long weak and at a discount to the US Dollar now trades at a premium. Moving about, ones ear soon becomes attuned to the difference between spoken Canadian and American English, the former more quietly spoken. One also notices the general friendliness and absence of aggression, not just to visitors but in daily life – and an ethnic diversity at variance with Canada’s traditional European roots. Above all, one senses a nation which has changed, which has succeeded in fashioning an identity that no longer constantly looks over its shoulder at its southern neighbour, of a country which feels strong and confident, well able finds its own solutions to today’s issues, where diversity of background is increasingly accepted and often welcomed and in which a Francophone citizen of Quebec can feel as proud of his Canadian nationality as of his Quebecois heritage.

Returning to London one can also feel something of a rising tide. Not just economically. But observing that, as they begin to bear fruit, reforms in education and social security are finding acceptance, and the beginnings of a new realism in relation to health care. Although hobbled by a somewhat dysfunctional coalition, there is a sense that The Cameron Government has brought about at least some much needed realism and commitment to reform, that Britain has to change in order to survive.

So why was returning to Israel so disturbing?

The Canada that I remembered had faced huge challenges – a static ageing population confronted by a surging, dynamic, 300 million population to its south speaking the same language and sharing much of the same historic culture, a lacklustre economy too heavily reliant on logging, agriculture and overly unionised traditional industries, and all this coupled with the dire threat up of breakup. Yet this year I read of and saw with my own eyes a country that had picked itself up and reinvented itself in the face of these seemingly overpowering challenges.

Whilst in Israel seemingly nothing has changed.

True Tel Aviv remains a fun happening city, still “cool” – if one can afford to live there. The sun continues to shine. The often very good restaurants are still full. Israel is still amazing and often uplifting.

But pick up a newspaper of one, two, three years ago and you would read pretty much the same news as today. On TV the same faces are saying much the same thing. Netanyahu is still fixated on Iran, maintaining a climate of fear, unable tactically to react and respond to a change in tune, even it is only that, coming from Tehran. Seemingly stuck in the past, nearly 800,000 out of a Jewish population of under 7 million turned out into the streets to follow the funeral procession of octogenarian Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual and political leader of an unreconstructed Shas. Similarly hostage to history, there seems no belief and little apparent interest anyway in the Palestinian peace process, let alone the so called “peace talks” supposedly taking place behind closed doors. Yair Lapid, is bogged down in domestic budgetary concerns – and with him with  the reputation of once bright Yaish Atid and the promised post-election reforms which only months ago seemed so hopeful but which now seem to have been  skilfully skewered by Netanyahu and Likud . ( A tiny but welcome exception to this is that this  year for the first  time in years  the end of Summer Time  has been aligned to Europe, giving Israelis an additional six weeks of useable daylight, this seemingly  to the chagrin of the ultra-orthodox and the confusion of automated computer and phone time clocks everywhere). The cost of living remains ludicrously, and surely unnecessarily high. No one seems to understand quite why this should be, especially with the Shekel so strong, but it has to be connected to the endemic lack of competition in the economy which remains unchanged and unchanging. Whilst, anathema surely to the principles of Israel’s founding fathers, the gap between rich and poor grows ever larger. The relative rankings of Israel’s premier universities, perhaps resting on their laurels and short of serious funding, is  starting to decline in the international league tables in the face of competition from Asia. And still, despite ever more cars,  there is no money, or even the apparent will, to build an underground rapid transit system in Greater Tel Aviv -whilst Netanyahu has just announced a $200 billion high speed railway link to Eilat  that no one else seems to want, for” strategic reasons”.

I recently read a piece in The Economist on “The Confidence Trap: A history of Democracy in Crisis by David Runciman, a Princeton historian, who writes about how democracy in Britain and America works and fails to work. He stresses the corruption of big money in politics and that failure is as normal in democracies as success. His suggestion is that democracies tend to lurch from elation to despair and back, to go from crisis to crisis, some mild, some severe. But that being flexible, unlike autocracies, somehow democracies muddle through, often in unexpected ways.

So I suppose that, if you believe Runciman, it is the fate of democracies to fall into something of a state of complacency until there comes a crisis which forces them to wake up. Arguably the Quebecois threat to Canada as a nation was the catalyst for the changes that I observed. And similarly the 2008/9 financial crisis, from which both Israel and Canada emerged virtually unscathed, was Britain’s. Sadly this suggests to me that it is the fate of Israel to remain stuck on its present path, going nowhere in particular, ignoring the real issues, until some unforeseen crisis arrives to shock it into a new direction. One just has to hope that when this shock arrives it is manageable and not impossibly severe.


Almagor  28/10/2013

Blog 37 – The Canadian Part 1

Posted August 13, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

Friday morning 9/08/2013

I am writing this sitting next to my wife Susie in the cosiness of our cabin on the Canadian, the huge all aluminium 1950’s retro design transcontinental train that we boarded last night in Toronto ( just made it !) and which will take us to Vancouver on Monday morning. We are in N Ontario, truly in the middle of nowhere: just endless forests, lakes, the very occasional tiny township straddling a rare road, no Wifi, no phone signal, now and then we pause to giveaway to one of the hundred plus car freight trains which trundle past, otherwise just the soporific rumble of our train making its slow but steady way west.

The Canadian - The Rear Coach

The Canadian – The Rear Coach


It’s Sunday morning suddenly. Where did all the time go? We have travelled some 3000 kilometres, at an average speed of 30/ 35 mph, along mainly single tracks, frequently stopping on sidings to allow enormous freight trains, often a kilometre long, priority. Endless grain  hoppers, oil tankers,  and fully  loaded flatbeds, , transporting Canada’s oil, grain and wood  to feed,  power and resource a hungry world, miles of  containers travelling in both directions  using Canada as a gigantic land bridge linking China, the N American Eastern seaboard  and Europe. 

Other times we have stopped, sometimes in the dead of night, in remote tiny communities, accessible only by rail, to allow perhaps just a single passenger to board or exit, this enormous transcontinental enterprise  doubling as the local supply train.

Now I understand why this train is called The Canadian. It’s a microcosm of Canada, a nation built and held together by the railway. It’s probably the only way to appreciate the immensity of space and distance and diversity of cultures that makes Canada what it is today. The train crews are all based in Winnipeg where they change crews midway, the each crew doing an 80 hour tour of duty to and from Vancouver or Toronto Somehow this  has the effect of centering the whole train experience,  looking east and west, the world become round in a way it never felt before.

View from Our Window

View from Our Window

“Immensity” I wrote.. Immense forests, endless lakes, then the prairies, greener, more diverse and more inhabited than I had expected – infinite vistas of  corn, wheat, flax, canola, livestock, vegetables, and still to come the immensity of the Rocky Mountains and the far Pacific Ocean beyond. This must surely define Canada just as surely as Britain’s history and national psyche has been shaped by its off shore island status (in Europe or out?) and Israel’s anxiety and paranoia derives  in no small part from  its tiny size, wedged precariously between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian desert.

Approaching the Rockies

Approaching the Rockies

Coming from New York, something else about experiencing Canada this way occurs. For a Brit Canada is family. The Queen’s head on coins and bank notes, the soft speech,  the presence of French  in this officially  bi-lingual nation, even Mark Charney recently installed as Governor  of the Bank of England are constant reminders of a shared  heritage, making the interaction with crew and other passengers that much more relaxed.

The absence of Wifi,  that phone signals are intermittent and few and far between, the lack of television and radio,  the only occasional access to (local) newspapers, which seemed problematic to begin with have become a boon. We are in a self contained cocoon, looking out but without intrusion, the world incredibly close, real and vivid but also delightfully remote.  The Prairies well behind us, now we are climbing steadily but almost imperceptibly such is the power of the two giant linked 3000 horse power engines which reassuringly we can see just ahead of our observation car.  Less than another 25 hour (!) day to go – we have just crossed into Mountain Time, Jasper the next stop, every moment to be savoured.

The Prairies

The Prairies

So I shall pause once more- but with a perspective on the world left behind starting to take shape.

To be continued…….



Blog 36 A Short Blog for Summer – Pomegranate Tours

Posted July 11, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s summer. So after the rather heavy subject matter of my last few blogs, something completely different.

I am reproducing  an e mail which recently  plopped into my mail box. The story behind it illustrates a phenomenon  which fascinates me.

Dear Friends,

As some of you know, it’s been an adventure-filled road from the trading floor to the launch of Pomegranate Travel.

The journey started when I landed in Tel Aviv and caught the highly infectious entrepreneur’s bug, endemic to Tel Avivians.

Combine that with my incorrigible sweet spot for luxury travel, and you’ve got me checking out the entire scene.

The journey started when I landed in Tel Aviv and caught the highly infectious entrepreneur’s bug, endemic to Tel Avivians.

What I discovered was a secret world of sparkly boutique and luxury hotels, lip smackingly scrumptious restaurants, pristine beaches, tour guides you want to invite to dinner parties, and an impossibly diverse gem box of cultural, historical and natural attractions – all of which no one outside of Israel seemed to know about.

I have hand-picked the very best luxury Israel experiences (I never claimed to be having a tough time out here!), in order to expose these amazing places.

I hope you enjoy perusing the site ….


Ps – If you like what I’ve done, please forward the website to five people you know who will like it too.”

Hannah, the email’s author, is a thirty something Oxford graduate from London with an excellent degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Before leaving for Israel in 2011 she  worked as an equity derivatives structurer at Merrill Lynch, leading the “good life” and doubtless earning a ton of money. Whist her Israeli born but American raised  boy friend, now her husband, was pursuing an Oxford academic career with distinction.

The envy of their peers, why  throw all of that up for an uncertain future in this narrow strip of sand and rocks that they call Israel? A question that on and off I have been wrestling with myself ever since I began these blogs some 30 months ago. What is it about this place that is so strangely compelling?

Summer here is particularly intoxicating: the casual informality of Tel Aviv belying a quiet sense of purpose, confidence and pent up energy ready to be released; the extraordinary light and visibility, the timelessness and magnificence of the country itself; the speed with which new roads, railways and communities appear; the pervading sense of Yes it’s Hard but Yes We can. But none of this on its own explains the attraction. There has to be another ingredient.

It was only when I read Hannah’s e mail that I realised what it is. It’s somewhere around the immediate sense of belonging, of being accepted just as you are,  of really being able to make a difference, the peculiar pleasure from the first morning of being an outside insider.

So let’s look again at Hannah’s e mail.

“it’s been an adventure-filled road from the trading floor to the launch of Pomegranate Travel” says it all; the sense of adventure, the fact that life here is uncertain is also what is attractive. Come to Israel and the familiar near certainties that governed life’s path before are suddenly no more. What you did may well count for nothing, at best for little. Hannah found no derivatives trading floors in Tel Aviv. You are thrown back on your own resources. When nothing is obvious everything is possible. In Israel that’s the norm. And always has been.

It is now deeply in the culture, as in
“The journey started when I landed in Tel Aviv and caught the highly infectious entrepreneur’s bug, endemic to Tel Avivians”.

For better or worse, often it seems for the worse, Israel is often in the news. Everywhere. So it was that in March this year a non Jewish Australian investment manager  on his way to  London and curious as to why I was spending so much time here, asked if he could drop in for 48 hours. We did a highly compressed Israel experience – Tel Aviv by night, the next morning up the coast to Caesarea, on to Acre via the Tunnels under the Carmel and stopping for  a glorious  late lunch at Uri Buri, then east to overnight in Almagor; the following  morning  the Christian  holy sites around the Sea of Galilee and back to Ben Gurion. This place is amazing, he kept saying. But why is it such a secret? Why doesn’t it market itself properly?

Or in Hannah’s words:

“What I discovered was a secret world of sparkly boutique and luxury hotels, lip smackingly scrumptious restaurants, pristine beaches, tour guides you want to invite to dinner parties, and an impossibly diverse gem box of cultural, historical and natural attractions – all of which no one outside of Israel seemed to know about. “

But it takes an outsider to see it. And an outsider’s perspective and skill set to do something about it.

Having seen the opportunity,  what struck me was the methodical  way  in which Hannah set about the task- the depth and breadth and thoroughness  of  her research,  the rigour with which she applied her innate understanding of what high standards mean, and the sheer professionalism and quality of her website. All things that she had become second nature when working in the City of London and which she was now applying in a completely different context.

I have little doubt Pomegranate Travel will succeed – do  check out the web site and if you like it  pass it on. But what interests me is this example, close to home, of how life here is just so engaging, unpredictable but intriguing, where nothing is easy but anything is possible. How Hannah, without local language skills and initially at something of a loss as to what to do, found a completely unexpected place in which to deploy her skills. Start Up Israel in action.

Whist writing this I have also been thinking about beards. “No more beards” was a  slogan of the Tahir Square protestors who brought down President Morsi ( at least for now) which caught my eye. Israel too is having its “No more beards” experience. The Ultra Orthodox parties are impotent out of  government. However much they huff, puff and curse, the reforms promised by Yaish Atid (Yair Lapid) and Jewish Home (Naftalin Bennet) are on track to pass into law before the summer recess. It’s pretty clear now that extremist religion does little to create the social and conditions needed to meet the aspirations of an educated population. Israel has woken unto the need to integrate its ultra orthodox into the mainstream. Being a true democracy fortunately it has the institutions with which to do it. Also within Judaism  is a deep rooted respect for human life which seems absent from Islam.  I find the courage and dignity of the Egyptian people awesome. But the beards of Islam are a formidable foe. If Egypt can find its way to creating a modern society, as Israel has managed to do, it will be amazing for the whole  Middle East. But I am not holding my breath.

Meantime it’s summer. Pomegranate Travel, like the Israel which gave it birth, is alive and well. Come and enjoy.

SMO 10/07/13

Blog 35 – Blog 33 All Europe Died in Auschwitz (Removed) and Blog 34 – A discussion

Posted June 6, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

My two blogs have created much interest.  So I thought that I would share a selection – although of course anonymously.  These are in addition to the comments which were made in WordPress and which can be read online.

Many readers did not see Blog 33 before I took it down and have specifically requested copies.  Many others have protested its removal as itself succumbing to political correctness.  The article, which was originally published in the Spanish press is freely available on the internet – see for example

 Interesting that you felt compelled to remove the previous blog.  It was of course right in what it said but today people are falling over themselves to be politically correct. When are they going to wake up to reality?

 For the record I find the attached email by the Spanish journalist to be incredibly offensive and totally racist. The worst kind of bigotry. Hard to understand how you could have sympathy with a journalist who seems unable to distinguish between Islamic people and who finds all Muslims to be the same as those that killed the British soldier…

 SMO reply:

 With respect. You miss two important issues:

1.      All previous immigrations to UK, and also other Europe countries, have been amicable to their host nations, accepting their values and institutions, including of course our forebears. Not so political Islam which is openly hostile.

2.      If liberal governments, hitherto supported by nearly all of us, do not get a grip on  what is happening, eventually there must be a high probability the indigenous populations will take matters into their own hands and we will end up with a far less liberal system than we have now. Which neither of us wish to see. UKIP is  but a start. Riots in Sweden another.

 You may not like the sentiments in the article that I reproduced. I am not sure that I do either. But nor do I, no doubt in common with millions of other British citizens, like to see our soldiers hacked to death on our streets, with the military in their nearby barracks powerless to intervene for fear of prosecution and Muhlars, often living on state benefits paid for by those whom they seek to subvert , remaining free to preach to the hate ( incidentally more racist and bigoted than anything you and I can imagine)  which leads and, even worse  is intended to lead, directly to the type of outrage that we have just witnessed.

 By withdrawing it, Simon, aren’t you bowing to the very political correctness that you (and, for that matter, I) condemn?

 By the way, exactly what is “all that is fine in Islam”?

 Your Blog 33 precipitated a useful conversation, and I understand your decision to withdraw it.  I also felt it was a valid appraisal of what is happening in Europe.  Unless Europeans (and Americans) can find the right balance, we are all in trouble.  One of the problems of a violent enemy in our midst is the reluctance of members of the (hopefully peaceful) communities that shelter the violent enemies to call them out.  No liberals Jews need fear that more conservative Jews will torch their homes for speaking out, but I suspect many Muslims are fearful of exposing their violent brethren.  But they need to realize they cannot stay on the sidelines and expect to avoid the battle.  Their role in distinguishing the dangerous Muslims from the peace loving ones is vital.  If they don’t rise to the task, they are likely to inherit mass hatred against their own communities.  Our governments need to accept the idea that terrorist profiling is not racial profiling, but common sense, necessary, and legal.  I appreciate your efforts to maintain balance in your writings.

I found the first blog very interesting and somewhat daring to say the least. Much of it, I have to say, seemed to ring very close to what many think including myself but it was rather general and liable to cause strong reactions.

 Thanks for this. Well done you!!

I have read that article before.

 The problem is Simon…as I am constantly reminded in my work of creating awareness and responsibility in others.

…TRUTH is the harshest thing you can say or be shown. It’s cold and sharp and uncovers comfortable areas of denial and ignorance for most people that they would rather not face.

People did not want to hear what you had to say I’m guessing?

 Islam has a problem and it’s our problem. And if one doesn’t accept or face or examine a problem it gets worse.

Like all these adverts on TV telling us to tell our Doctors about going to the toilet more than usual ( because they found that too many people died because of fear of talking about a problem) …they’re designed to

get us to face difficult realities…and interestingly here ask us to look at our ‘crap’.

 I’m sure many who’ve written to you will say, you can’t label an entire culture…that’s racist…and we do have to be so careful. But we can be by always saying we must be totally intolerant of values, words and actions that don’t nurture positive human values such as equality and fraternity. Only after these things are set in stone can we talk about democracy or tolerance. These have no value without the former.

 The fact remains you’ve done a good thing here… what you’ve written is what needs to be said in a free and positive values society.

 Because of the deafening and dangerous VACUUM of silence that surrounds us and the Islamic problem…no-one is allowed to talk about it…it’s verboten…it’s practically illegal to say anything bad about Muslims.

 Even after 7/7 and in the wake of increasing evidence there’s only fear and control.  We live in fear so no-one can say anything. That’s the beginning of the end of society right there ….and it’s actually helping to escalate the issues.  I’m sorry to say these will continue to get worse I fear as the power that a bully feels only grows when they know they are feared…and good people do and say nothing.

Have just about enough brain to respond to your Blog. I am just a bit concerned that you are building ideas based on one taxi driver although it is clear he struck a chord. I agree that our immigration policies have been far too lax a point which all political parties agree. There are several areas of UK where particular ethnic minorities dominate to the exclusion of former residents. However I do not agree we imported the “wrong” ones. Several middle class people have become jihadists. I do fear we are creating ghettos and faith schools encourage this – I know you won’t agree with that. I don’t believe the Muslim community are turning against their host community as you suggest. They are predominantly first generation and I recall the backlash against West Indians who have now assimilated rather well. There is also an uncomfortable fact that our economic growth has been dependant on immigration. It is a sign of the times that citizenship requires passing an exam on the Uk and peoples habits. Political correctness? I agree there have been stupidities. However thanks to the rapid decline of religion we have lost the consensus on core value. And have bought in to almost anything goes. The core conflict in the world is actually about women and their status and how men and different religious sects perceive them. You cannot be a growing economy without them. That applies to Japan too. I have digressed far from the recent murders. They are awful but so too were the Crusades. Fundamentalism is abhorrent but the recent murders suggest personal misfortune and poverty were contributory. The best way to avoid prejudice and hatred is to encourage cultural assimilation. But I do agree that Mullahs who spread hatred should be arrested and if possible barred from entry. I. Also think the internet demands censorship however hard that might be since many extreme ideas emanate from it especially pornography.

 In the west we have to consider HOW we respond to a problem I think most people consider a problem but are too fearful to address.. This is why it just gets worse.
Like parents who for fear of rebellion fear giving their children’s boundaries

 I’m pleased you withdrew your last blog posting. I was deeply unsettled by it and it so didn’t seem like ‘you’ I discussed with a couple of friends to see if I’d read it correctly.

 No doubt your other mates have told you why they found it difficult – so I won’t trouble you.

 One additional point that troubles me is that in the Woolwich case – as far as I have read – the perpetrators were born British Christians – so perhaps it says something about the state of psychologically damaged young men in this country as about Islam?

 I read the Article on Europe dying at the Gates of Auschwitz some years ago and always felt it conveyed a very powerful message.

Your blog is a very clear analysis of the problem Europe faces.
I feel the biggest problem is the failure of UK politicians to acknowledge that crimes such as the murder of gunner Rigby in London are Islamic. For, no doubt political reasons, both Cameron and Boris Johnson specifically made statements that this crime was not related to Islamic teaching when the perpetrator made very clear statements to the contrary. I can understand leaders wishing to distinguish between radical Islam and Muslims who wish to practice their religion peacefully. But, by refusing to acknowlede the problem, politicians are avoiding the necessity of taking responsibility to solve it.
Similarly it is known that some Universities refuse to monitor meetings which are held on Campus by radical groups, on the basis that they woukd be preventing freedom of speech. Nevertheless it seems wrong that these educators do not have a duty of care for the mental and social well being of their students. I believe they should be empowered to prevent radicalisation and incitement to hatred on Campuses.

It seems there are not nearly enough moderate Muslims who are prepared to publicly condemn the actions and teachings of extremists and encourage their youth to become an integral part of their host society.
The equivalent of the old adage to be a citizen in the street and a Jew in the home needs to be encouraged in Muslim society.

I think your analysis is quite correct when you suggest that the public will take action independently of the Government and I believe this could potentially be a far more dangerous situation than if the Government took the necessary steps, even at this late stage , to try and regain control . It may, unfortunately, be a case of trying to put the genie back in the box

From articles I read from the States and personal knowledge of students on Campus there, many of them are experiencing similar problems.

I do agree with that – it was the reference to 20 million Muslims that made me sit up. Also I am not sure that the Islamic jihaddists are really a ‘European Muslim immigrant’ phenomenon, if I can use that term. Islamic extremism is clearly attractive to some Muslim youths in Europe but is being imported rather than inherent in the world view of most European Muslims, I suspect. I realise this is a rather PC view but is certainly one that my Muslim friends, perhaps inevitably, would endorse.

 Your blog raised so many issues that it is difficult to know where to start.

So I will simply give two anecdotes that come to me.

When I was a boy in Stamford Hill, it was impossible to walk to school without being set upon by a group of Jew-baiting Catholic kids. Thankfully in those days there were no knives and I was gifted with spectacularly fast running legs and therefore I was only trapped and beaten a couple of times. On one such occasion, when surrounded by about 8 kids I asked what I had done wrong. ‘You killed Jesus’, said one lad. ‘But I wasn’t alive then and anyway Jesus was Jewish too.’

Since Jesus obviously wasn’t Jewish and I had insulted the Lord by calling him such, they set about me with increased vigour.

My Dad heard that the Priest at the local church was encouraging his flock, including these kids, to chastise Jews so my Dad went to see the Priest. The priest, not too politely, told him to get lost.

The other anecdote….

About the time of your ‘offensive’ blog post I got into a taxi in High Wycombe driven by a very polite Pakistani driver. The driver offered no political comments but said he worked by day as a driver and by night as a security guard.

Anyway, on his radio there was a phone-in programme and the topic was gypsies. Apparently a group of gypsies had wandered into a local cinema without paying. In the studio there was a gypsy representative whose job, of course, was to say how these particular gypsies were not typical etc. Call after call came and you can predict the content. Each caller would start by saying the saga he was about to relate was not typical of all gypsies BUT… and the gypsy rep would say something reassuring;  EXCEPT for one case which was about a particular gypsy encampment. 

 About that particular example the gypsy rep said ‘Ah but they’re IRISH (gypsies)….’ The wrong sort of gypsy it appears.

The point that comes to mind for me is that prejudice is alive and well. Political Correctedness only exists to the extent that prejudice has to be prefaced by an apology.

When I was walking through London in the seventies during the IRA campaign I was truly worried.

Aspects of Political Islam are truly abhorrent, but are we truly any less safe than in earlier years?



Blog 34 – Blog 33, All European Life Died in Auschwitz Withdrawn

Posted May 28, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

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 under age 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 GunnerRigby 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

Blog 32 – A Soldier’s Letter

Posted April 15, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I was much affected by this letter, written to his parents from a young British political science graduate from London who, shortly after his graduation, moved to Israel. I feel privileged that, despite the difference in our ages, I am able to regard him as a friend. The letter was forwarded to me by his father.

Believing that the letter should be read more widely I asked if I might post it on my Blog. He readily agreed – but on condition that his name should remain anonymous. I have edited it for sense very slightly; some names have been omitted.

On Sunday (end March) I hand back my IDF uniform after the completion of my 18 month national service to the country.

I enrolled in February 2011 having been summoned to do 6 months of national service. I immediately volunteered to extend my service to at least 18 months and to be a combat soldier in the IDF. Initially I was recruited into the infantry Nachal (Combat Farmer Soldiers) brigade, however after a series of invite only tests I was selected to be in a Special Services unit, becoming the oldest and first lone soldier from Britain to enrol there. I served in the unit for only 5 months, being invalided out, and spent the remainder of my service sitting in the office of the International Training Branch of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces – the Army) All in all I served for 7 months as a combat soldier and 11 months as a “jobnik”. Both were an absolute privilege.

Initially when I went into the army my Ivrit (Modern Hebrew) was poor, my understanding of the country was fairly limited. I had a fairly good knowledge of the history, the geography, all from an outsider’s perspective. I was by no means integrated into society. I had lived in Tel Aviv, a city with a diverse mix of people, a party culture, a large Anglo speaking population, ‘haboua’ (the bubble). Now I had moved from one bubble to another. The bubble of the IDF.


In the combat units the army is your life, you live, breathe, sleep and drink the army… whether you like it or not. Your gun comes home with you for a reason. Most guys hate it, what we have been through is tough, very tough, not physically but mentally. It drains you. They hate it, but they still do it. They don’t even have to. Serving in a combat unit is regarded as volunteering. It is so easy to get out of these units, these days, only a tiny percentage of recruits actually serve in combat units. Out of those that have a medical profile good enough to perform combat duties (the minority with a perfect health history), only 70% actually follow through with going into combat roles. These kids are 18 or 19 at best and they will almost be guaranteed to be required to serve in a major conflict at some point in their lives whether it be now or when they have a wife and kids. They are making a sacrifice lasting far longer than 3 years and their serving officers remarkably sign on extra time for very little self-benefit other than safeguarding the country.

People often asked me whether being in the army or being an officer gets you a good job in life or sets you up etc…The answer is, it doesn’t really. Perhaps if one served in the most elite forces it can raise a few eyebrows from a few employers (some do like the fact that I managed to be selected for Special Services), but apart from that people say kol hacavod (“well done”) and that’s about it. We do the army because that’s what we do. Officers are guys who were good soldiers and the good officers get promoted so on and so forth…

I would say that not doing the army is frowned upon – and so it should be in most cases. But doing the army does not get you a free lunch ticket. When my serving commander retires he is going to be a primary school teacher and my driving instructor was a brigadier-general in the armed forces. Wherever you turn in Israel heroes lie around the corner.

There are 250,000 holocaust survivors living here. This figure still astounds me. My girlfriend’s late grandfather survived the camps, but most of his family did not, her great-grandfather was a commander in the Lechi (a Jewish Underground organisation during the British mandate). They don’t even talk about this, for this is normal. This is statistically your average Jewish family. If your grandparents didn’t escape Eastern Europe and flee, then they probably fled from somewhere else; my fellow soldiers were the descendants of refugees from North-Africa, the Middle East and Persia. They fled Arab lands and radical Muslim regimes because the Jew was the enemy, the obstacle in the face of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic imperialism. In 1947 a Jewish state was rejected by the Arab League at the time and its destruction was sought. Today the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen categorically refuses to recognise the Jewish state, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic and in the United Nations. Zionism is a racist evil ideology, the last flourishing community in the Middle East that is not Islamic or Arab.

The Threat

The only thing keeping Israel safe is its security policy. That ‘brutal’ occupation is not a political measure for pleasure it is a security policy. When it was lifted in Gaza what did we witness afterwards? When it was lifted in southern Lebanon what did we witness? This is not to say Israel should not take risks or make sacrifices, but decisions are based upon what can safeguard the country in the long term. Gaza and Lebanon lie next to mainly rural communities whereas the West Bank straddles Tel Aviv and borders Jerusalem. Israel could not (it didn’t) remotely function with sporadic rocket fire or frequent terrorist attacks in its major population centres. The generals of the army are military men not diplomats. Their job is to make tough decisions, decisions that are not popular diplomatically; at times heart-breaking decisions like sending our men into battle. In the army you learn it is necessary to die and necessary to kill. It takes courage to kill someone. When a female combat soldier killed 3 terrorists on the Egyptian border planning to cross into Israel, everyone was united in praise, she was a national hero. One year previous a similar terrorist cell in Sinai breached the border fence and opened fire on a bus full of Israeli civilians and soldiers. She saved lives. Her actions were probably broadcast around the world as ‘Israel kills 3 people on the Egyptian border’. Many people around the world will think that Israel is provoking a response ‘Israel assassinates a terrorist in Gaza’. In Israel we respond with relief. That terrorist in Gaza, the West Bank or Egypt that was killed was on his way to kill us, was planning to kill us or in the process of doing so. Once again these military strikes are military measures, they are not political. So when an international politician asks Israeli politicians to stop targeted assassinations, it’s like asking the Prime Minister to stop arresting murderers or drug dealers in London. Do we feel safe in Israel if our army plays ‘wait and see’…no.

My Brothers

everyone is your brother in the army. In Nachal I served with Bedouins, Druze and Jews from all walks of life.

In my unit we had kibbutznikim (kibbutz members), mitnachlim (settlers), secular, moshavnikim (members of farming villages – such as Almagor), an Ethiopian, religious and the usual guys from the city (who notoriously find life hard in the elite units). Almost all of them did a year out before the army. Many of them learned torah, many of them volunteered. They gave before they had to give. They wanted to go in with the right mentality. They are all awesome people and took me in like one of their own. More than half of them like me have also dropped out for various reasons. They all had an unbelievable knowledge of the country, the history, the land, the geography. Their parents fought in the wars, many suffered the immense hardships of our Jewish ancestors. A secular soldier from Jerusalem could date his family back 15 generations here in the holy land, one soldier from Itamar witnessed his father being killed by a lynch mob during the 2nd intifada. He was the Rambo of our unit. After spending 27 days training in the desert without a break our officer pleased us all by informing us we were being sent home for Shabbat. There is no better feeling in the world I can assure you. One of the soldier’s (who the previous week had personally displayed to me his desperation to see his family) was informed by the officer he was not being sent home as he had not properly cleaned his gun, ‘Rambo’ from Itamar put up his hand and informed the officer that he had volunteered to help clean the gun and that he had neglected his own word by not doing so. Both of them remained in the desert as we all went home for Shabbat. We had no access to phones even on Shabbat, we were given the privilege of being able to eat chocolates sent from our parents and Jewish organisations on Shabbat, however even this basic privilege was taken away from us if we had not performed our tasks efficiently. Sitting down, having a chat, getting that minute break to look at the stars, sleeping, a sleeping bag- these are luxuries in the armed forces and things you treasure!

On Shabbat we gave presentations on our Zionist heroes, we spoke about our grandparents. I told my unit how my Grandfather had volunteered to fight the Nazis and how this had inspired me to enrol as a combat soldier in the Israeli army. I remember finding a march hard and one soldier whispered in my ear, ‘come on don’t forget your Grandpa’….

That tough week which you hated was made to feel a little bit better by dancing to kabbalat Shabbat tunes in a tent with a hastily gathered together minyan (prayer group) or gathering round a havdalah candle (the ceremony which marks the end of Shabbat) before the brutal hardship of the next week began again. In the elite forces you learn to appreciate your Judaism, it’s the only thing you’ve got left inside of you at times.

The guys I served with were honest. Honesty is the number one game in the Israeli army. Being thorough and professional is equally important. You are encouraged on Shabbat to criticise one another and give constructive feedback. You are encouraged to speak ‘dogri’ face to face and to not shy away from personal problems. You are expected to volunteer and you put your brother first before yourself. When someone asks for help you say yes, but someone should never need to ask, you offer and look around for others first. If you have 5 minutes to eat no one wants to eat first and sometimes you did not eat lunch that day because every person eating requires someone to guard them, so if you were guarding your friend sometimes you didn’t eat. If there was no one guarding in the open field no one could rest to eat. If there was no one guarding in the West Bank people would not be able to eat at home. It’s a simple equation. An equation forever being lost…

IDF Morals

The soldiers at checkpoints are courageous not only because they are at the front line of Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, knife attacks, stones and what not, but because they are the enemy of world. They are hated and demonised not just by extremist Muslims and terrorists but it seems by a growing number of their own people around the world. They are the last line of defence and they stand in the boiling heat for 4-8 hours. I performed at a checkpoint once or twice it was fucking annoying, but necessary. These days when people want kudos and rewards, standing at an army post brings very little of these things, it also brings no self-satisfaction whatsoever and in an age when many people need to feel good about themselves I can understand why this job is seen as being unworthy. If only the Israeli army was like a James Bond movie where we could chase the evil bad guys in a suit. Regrettably the bad guys aren’t evil. Described as ‘mahablim’ (terrorists), the baddies come in the form of children with rocks, slingshots, teenagers with weapons and men and women with suicide belts. They come at you with a smile before they steal your magazines from your weapon while you bend over to tie your shoelace. On the West Bank border they send Bedouin tribes with sheep to herd their animals through military firing ranges in order to shove unused bullets into the wool of the sheep and cartridge cases into their baskets and G-d forbid more. After your intensive two week training in the desert you get home to see your lawyer/accountant friend in the UK has shared an Ha’aretz article written by a journalist who served as a jobnik in the army 30 years ago describing how the Israeli army prevents Bedouins from herding their flock through a military zone in the desert and this is systematic of the inhumane occupation and how this is a cause of the conflict. Nothing irritates you more…It reminds me of that scene in the Aviator when Howard Hughes visits the vast Hepburn Country House to hear the family berating capitalism and advocating socialism. Due to their wealth that they have inherited through capitalism they now do not need to care about money. The Jews in the Diaspora are safe, therefore many do not need to worry about living in safety. They have become so obsessed with Palestinians that they have forgotten about Israelis. They pipe up during the military operations in Gaza but failed to speak up when rockets were being sent into Israeli communities. They can berate Israel’s policies forgetting that it is Israel’s military policies that mean it is in existence today. They forget that it is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank that has brought it peace at home and with Jordan, and they forget that it was after Israel’s devastating blows against Egypt that peace became a possibility with once a ferocious enemy. A strong Israel is strong, a weak Israel is weak.

Diaspora Jews have become military experts. One thing I have learnt during my service is how I know nothing. There are tens of thousands of Israelis that know and give more than I do in the field of intelligence and in combat. Military strategy is not simple and I do not claim to be a military expert. Policies by the IDF are pursued to keep us safe. Operation Pillar of Defence was not part of any peace process it is part of a military plan to stop rockets from being fired into Israel. If that happens it is a success, if it doesn’t it isn’t. Every operation is decided based on this premise not by any other. I regret all those wasted hours talking over the dinner table about Israel’s military strategy in the West Bank, talking about checkpoints, fences, restrictions, settlements, flotillas…what do we really know? Absolutely nothing.


I remember casually criticising Israel’s military policies on numerous occasions because I felt that blind support was naive and cringe worthy. I must have sounded like a fool on numerous occasions. I don’t want to be a fool. I feel ashamed quite frankly and embarrassed of the community I grew up in, that we feel so comfortable to criticise an army where our brothers are risking their lives and which operates with professionalism and morals. I can’t shoot a teenager regardless of his actions and if someone is coming to kill me, I must warn him verbally, then fire in the air, then shoot at the vehicle and then if I have permission from my commander I can fire at the body. Why do kids throw stones at the IDF? It’s because we cannot do anything in return and when a soldier goes and chases that “prick” who throws rocks at him every day and kicks him a few times someone is waiting with a camera to stick it on YouTube to show the world… everyone condemns the ‘brutal’ occupation. Ironically the condemnation only encourages more kids to stand in harm’s way. The repetitive videos broadcast online of the Bi’ilin weekly protest are effectively an advert, encouraging international activists from around the world to come and attack our soldiers standing on the border fence. People do not come to protest outside our supreme court (the body which decides where the security fence lies), they come to attack and wind us up, the soldiers. The ones who do not throw rocks spit and curse. They think we are evil because of ‘that’ documentary or ‘that’ video on YouTube.


In Israel as a soldier you are cared for and are pampered. At the supermarket people let you in front of them when they see you in your uniform. Lone soldiers are thanked for filling a void of growing apathy. Your fellow soldiers ask where you are for the chaggim (Holidays) as does any stranger when they hear you may be alone for Shabbat or the chaggim. I got a package from some kids in America with a nice note, there is no better feeling in the world. In the army, life is tough and you feel empty and worthless. Sometimes being pampered is necessary. That little generic note from the secretary at NefeshbNefesh written with a smiley face at the end is enough to motivate you for the upcoming week. Celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day) and commemorating Yom HaZikron (Memorial Day) reminds of us of the intrinsic link between our armed forces and our nation’s survival.

When I look back at my service it pains me that I did not potentially do enough, but I forget that I have given more than what was required of me. It pains me to know that there are tens of thousands of other people making lifelong sacrifices for our nation. Please G-d I will raise a family that will contribute to Am Yisrael (The Nation of Israel) and please G-d in peace. I want to thank you my parents for your bravery and courage in supporting my decision to serve in combat and being in the elite forces. The pioneers of yesteryear would have been proud. You never once expressed doubt and concern and you were there when times were hard, when times became too hard for me. You were there for me, like you have always been.

I truly love the nation of the Jewish people. May we continue to strive to overcome our hardships. May we continue to give to the rest of the world what we give today and what we gave yesterday, in peace and prosperity.

Am Yisrael Hai  (Long Live Israel)

Corporal S———–.”

smo, Moshav Almagor April 15 2013

Blog 31 Habemus Papum

Posted March 19, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

After 28 hours the Catholic Church has a new Pope, and rather an interesting one by the look of it.

It took Bibi Netanyahu six weeks to put together a coalition.  Why it took so long is at least as interesting as the new Pope. Largely ignored by the international media, these past six weeks since the election, Israel has been experiencing a quiet revolution.

The reason Netanyahu took so long to form his coalition is that in the election nothing worked as expected.  First, Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Bitenu, the Russian immigrant party which Netanyahu combined with Likud to form a single block, was indicted for fraud and had to step aside from the election.  Then the Likud primaries, having thrown out its moderates and replaced them with hardliners – Likud showing its true face – the opinion polls started showing Likud Bitenu bleeding votes to the newly formed Jewish Homeland party led by Naftalin Bennett.

Who is Bennett you may well ask.  He seemed to come from nowhere.  A decorated Army commando from an elite unit in which he saw service in Lebanon, and then a successful start up entrepreneur, Bennett served for five years as Chief of Staff in Binyamin Netanyahu’s previous government, fell out with his wife Sara and joined the Settler Movement.  Something of an enigma, Bennett, although supporting the Settlers, does not live among them.  He lives in Ra’anana (a well to do rather “anglo” town just north of Tel Aviv), wears a knitted kippa (a sign of modern religious observance) and has a secular wife.  Bennett ascribes his becoming religious to his experiences in the Lebanese war where he served among religious soldiers whom he felt received a raw deal.  His Jewish Homeland party is an amalgam of a right wing settler party and religious Zionists; which he took from six to twelve seats – out of a total of 120.

The next surprise was Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a centrist party created by Yair Lapid, the television presenter son of former Shenui (Change) party leader “Tommy” Lapid.  In a previous election Shenui had campaigned on an anti religious ticket, won seats, but then disappeared.  In the weeks leading up to the election the media and commentariat largely wrote off Yesh Atid as a repeat performance.  They were wrong.  Yesh Atid was the big surprise of this election, emerging as the second largest party, with nineteen seats.   Indeed had Likud and Israel Bitenu not joined together, Yesh Atid and Likud would have been equal.

The media, particularly the international media, demonised Bennett as leader of the hard line right wing party of the settler movement – and missed Yesh Atid entirely.  How come, you may fairly ask?  For several reasons.  Firstly, none of the Yesh Atid candidates had previously been in national politics, although two had served with distinction in local government as mayors -and most of Yesh Atid’s campaigning was through the social media appealing to very much the same constituency as the 2011 social protests which in political terms appeared to have gone nowhere. Whilst in the case of Jewish Homeland no one seemed to look beyond the Settler issue to understand what Bennett was really about.

More surprises were to follow.  It is a tradition that when a new Knesset (parliament) is sworn in new members are invited to make an opening speech.  With coalition negotiations barely started this gave the Israeli electorate their first indication of whom they had elected.  They liked it.  Bennett came across as amiable, contemporary and intelligent.  Yesh Atid, supposedly the secular party, produced two rabbis, one Shai Piron, a prominent educator, in the Number 2 position, the other an American immigrant, both of whom whilst truly observant, reject the type of Judaism that the ultra orthodox (Haredi) parties represented.  Dr Ruth Calderon , a secular Torah specialist, gave a speech telling why, as a secular Israeli, an appreciation of Torah was essential to the Jewish state.  Captured on YouTube, these and other speeches quickly went viral. Before long new opinion polls were showing Lapid and Bennett both gaining further seats at the expense of Likud Bitenu in the event of a new election, a message no doubt not lost on the Prime Minister.

Bibi himself seemed somewhat bemused.  Uncharacteristically he took time even to begin to start coalition negotiations, no doubt assuming that with Shas and the other Haredi parties to rely on, he could divide and manipulate as usual.  It didn’t work.  Bennett and Lapid, with thirty one seats between them, saw that together they held a blocking position.  Not only that, apart from Jewish Homeland’s position on the Settlements, they agreed on almost everything – universal military service for all, without exemption, i.e. without exemption for the ultra orthodox; bringing the ultra orthodox into the workplace; requiring the study of English, History and Maths in all schools, including the ultra orthodox; reducing the number of cabinet ministers; reducing the cost of housing and improving the position of the (hard pressed) middle class; introducing competition into the marketplace; public transport on the Sabbath even; and, most significantly, that neither would enter the government without the other.  This was the turning point at which it became apparent that unless Bibi could break the Bennett/ Lapid partnership he would have to govern with them or not at all.  And if with them, without the Haredi.  Overnight the Haredi parties, who had almost always been in government, found themselves in the cold.  Furious bargaining took place, the usual spin emanating from Likud Bitenu – but interestingly nothing from Yesh Atid, which held its discipline.  Finally, hours before the deadline, the new, downsized, government emerged to be sworn in, just two days before the arrival of President Obama.

Below is a link to an article from the Times of Israel which describes the new Yesh Atid Knesset members – seemingly a breed apart from the typical Israeli politicos to whom we had become wearily accustomed. It would be naive to think that politics had suddenly become honest. But I sense real change. Such that I find it difficult to avoid a sense of well being that I have not felt here for a very long time.

A few thoughts to finish with:

Education is now a political priority.

The new politics is about putting Israel’s own house in order, rather than stressing constantly about security. Ever since I can recall the Right Left divide here has been defined in terms of security, the Settlements, whether or not one believes in a two state solution. These issues barely featured in the election – or since. They have not gone away. But perhaps now Iran is for the Americans, Palestine for the Palestinians. Meanwhile, just for now, there is work to be done at home.

In a sense there are now really two governments; the old and the new. It could still all go wrong. The understanding between Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Bennett (Jewish Home) could well break down over the issue of the Settlements. One should never underestimate Netanyahu’s ability to duck and weave.  Israel has still to work out how to be both Jewish and democratic. There is a way to go. But I cannot help feeling that these election results are a good start. A better start than I could ever have imagined eight weeks ago.

Tomorrow President Obama arrives. Everything may change. Until then I sense a feel good factor in the air and I am making the most of it

SMO/ Moshav Almagor, 18/03/2013

Blog 30 – Reflections on An Election

Posted January 28, 2013 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I  wasn’t actually there for the Israeli Election, the first Susie and I had missed since we became eligible to vote, having left the weekend before to join my 11 year old grandson’s paintball party – which by the time I arrived was an early casualty of freezing snow. But no matter. My expectations of the election outcome were so bleak I wasn’t really that bothered.  It all seemed rather hopeless.

My pessimism wasn’t shared by Amnon. Amnon is a good friendwho lives outside Safed.  He is a pillar of the community from an old Labour political family.   He was and for all I know may still be,  a Brigadier in the Army Reserves.  What I do recall is that  he was prominent in  the Army Officers protest hunger strike which followed the first Lebanon War.  Chatting just a few days before the election, and knowing his politics, I could not understand why he seemed so calm and unruffled. “Simon” he admonished me, ” you have to remember that nothing is what it seems in Israeli politics. Anything can happen in our elections”

I spent the three days before I left travelling with a Church of England clergy study visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territory, under the auspices of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) of which until recently I was a Trustee. This was my second such tour. The first left an indelible impression. This time, although I had to leave in the middle,  was no different.

Traditionally there has been a lot of misunderstanding between our two communities, which of course was the raison d’etre for CCJ in the first place. More recently the all too conspicuous  failure of the Israel Palestinian peace process has converted much of that misunderstanding into outright hostility. None of this, coupled with the additional settlement building plans announced by the Israel government and the apparently inexorable ascendency of the hard line right wing predicted by the election opinion polls,  provided a  particularly  promising background for the tour.

Day 1 set the scene.  A visit to look over into the Gaza Strip, warm sunny and seemingly quiet, but desolate within. Then a drive along the border passing through beautifully cultivated fields and attractive shady kibbutzim to the Kerem Shalom crossing point on the Gaza/Egypt border. A massive undertaking, this, designed to provide supplies to a Gaza whose government does not recognize and seeks to destroy the people who provide them, a crossing that because it is periodically attacked with rockets and even more deadly  mortars, is designed to protect the Israelis who work there and ensure that the protagonists never meet so that,  no matter what,  supplies continue to get through – as they did right through the recent hostilities.   All this now supplemented by a heavily secured Egyptian border designed, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Moslem Brotherhood, to keep the Gazans from entering Egypt.

Gaza/ Egypt Border

Gaza Egyptian Border

We were shown around by Ami, the civilian Director of the crossing. His story is remarkable. Head of security for the Israeli settlements in Gaza before they were evacuated by Ariel Sharon, where he was  several times wounded,  his life was now dedicated  to ensuring that essential supplies continue get through. “Why” he was asked. “Because I know these people. I lived and worked among them. They are people like us. Never mind Hamas. They have every right to live as best they can and I believe, and my Government believes, that it is in our interest that they should. It isn’t us that has  created this prison. This is not how we wanted it after we left.  Before Hamas thousands of Gazans crossed the border to work every day; crossings, now closed, were all open. ”

Gaza is the size and shape of Greater Tel Aviv just some 60 miles up the coast. Huge sums of money have been poured in. The extensive greenhouse economy which Israel purposely left behind has been destroyed and turned into a fighters training camp. How sad that rather than setting about building a modern economy,  as  Jewish residents of Mandate Palestine begun to do from the moment of their arrival, Hamas’ primary focus has been the attempted destruction of Israel, which inevitably has brought the closure which is all the world chooses to see.

Back in Tel Aviv that evening we had the benefit of a remarkably forthright briefing from the British Embassy, given, in the absence of the Ambassador Matthew Gould, by his Deputy Head of Mission Rob Dixon. Rob was deeply impressive. Straight talking, no flannel, no evasions, and having learnt Hebrew before coming to the job, he explained firstly why Israel was so important to British interests, gave us  a superbly comprehensible overview of the Israeli elections and  their predicted outcome,  and finished with a frank but bleak assessment of the prospects for reaching any Two State solution – and the likelihood consequences of failure.

Day 2 after an early but very  fine Israeli breakfast, we went to The West Bank, to see for ourselves, travelling north then east from Tel Aviv, our bus journey beginning  as usual with morning prayers.

Our first destination was Ariel, the centre of one of the three main settler blocks jutting into the West Bank, (“Judea and Samaria” to the settlers) from the coastal plain that is pre 1967 Israel. On the way we visited a typical red roofed hilltop settlement surrounded by Palestinian Arab villages, encountering on the ground the complexities of areas A (Palestinian controlled and administered, closed to Israelis) B (Palestinian administration) but joint security with Israel and C ( full Israel security and administration except over Palestinian civilians). We had as our guide a young religious married resident of one such settlement. Rather surreally,  she introduced herself in very English English, explaining that her parents came from England. She did a good job explaining her point of view, answering questions and sounded most reasonable – provided one accepted her basic premise that Judea and Samarea are part of Israel.

Settler Guide

Our English speaking guide to the Settlements

Our next stop was to the industrial area of Ariel to visit an Israeli owned plastics factory. We were greeted and shown round by its manager Yehuda.  Yehuda is not a settler but a member of a kibbutz in the south of Israel who commuted daily to his job,  to which he was clearly dedicated, of bringing work to his labour force of Jews and local Arabs. The Palestinian Authority boycotts Jewish industry in the West Bank. And there is a lively movement in Europe to do the same. To those opposing the Occupation it seems appropriate – until Yehuda introduces us to his work force. It is split approximately 50/50 between Jews and Palestinian Arabs.  They explain that the Arabs have no other work, the PA having  made little progress in establishing Palestinisn owned industry, that everyone has the same employment conditions, the Palestinians  receiving from the company identical  pension, health and other social security benefits as the Israelis receive from Israel, and that since the Israelis have other employment opportunities but the Palestinians do not, the boycott harms only those it is supposed to help. Nothing is quite what it seems, it seems.

The day progressed. We go next to the Settlers’ “university” of Ariel where the rather smooth  Chancellor finds time to meet with us and chaperone the four students produced for us to meet; from there we are joined by a Rabbi farmer  from America who takes us to and explains the significance of Shiloh, where he now lives, the supposed resting place of the  Tabernacle before the building of the First Temple. All this time we are within Area C, “settler land”, nothing hidden, all questions answered head on, committed people on a mission. It’s getting cold.

Now it’s  time to head into Area A, Palestine Authority proper, where we are to spend the night in Ramallah, the seat of the PA Government. We change guide, swapping Avihu, our personable and well informed Israeli leader these past two days, who leaves us at the border, for George, a Christian Arab,  resident of Bethlehem, who will be responsible for us overnight. Immediately the narrative changes.  George points out the check points through which we pass (all incidentally open and unmanned), Arafat’s tomb, and describes various examples of injustice. As darkness falls we arrive at our destination, there to meet members of the PA negotiating team and learn their position.

After a day among the settlements I think we are all eager to hear the Palestinian perspective. To which, I think it’s probably fair to say, all of us are pre disposed to be sympathetic. It is such a letdown. Half truths, selective data, vast tracts of history omitted, what most powerfully comes across is an all pervasive victim mentality. It’s so disappointing. None of us there supported the Occupation. I am sure we all want to see a Two State solution. But listening to the PA representatives, one despaired of them having any concept of reality. To make the settlers’ case plausible – that’s quite an achievement.

Belying all that we have heard from the PA, Ramallah itself appears to be booming; luxury flats, or at least flats every bit as imposing as those seen in Tel Aviv, going up all around, our brand new Movenpick  hotel  built to be  five star, gated detached housing communities passed on the way in, clearly there is money around. Much of it perhaps from Europe.

Before dinner, we are addressed by the local Palestinian Roman Catholic priest. Impressive to begin with, as he tells of his practical communal work, we are all dismayed when he strays off into political fantasy. I sense among the Group a strong wish to identify with, believe in and support the Palestinian case to end the Occupation.   But we are all disappointed again.

It’s been a long day and we have early start tomorrow. We are tired – but readily agree to Bishop Alistair’s suggestion that before turning in for the night we should convene and share our impressions of the first two days. There isn’t much optimism.

I find myself wondering aloud if in fact the whole Israel Palestinian impasse is a classic case of co-dependency on a national scale: Jews and Arabs each prisoners of their respective narratives of history, who when faced with any alternative are actually more comfortable with the conflict to which they are accustomed, each unable to leave the comfort zone which it has become.

Day 3 we leave Ramallah at daybreak, skirting Jerusalem and the Fence, pick up Avihu as we re-enter Area C (another open and unmanned checkpoint) and journey down through the Judean desert to Jericho and then north along the Jordan Valley. We pass Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements apparently living in harmony, sharing an agriculture of dates and winter vegetables, until suddenly we are back in Israel proper: Galilee, well tended fields, verdant from this year’s ample winter rains, prosperous farming communities, all the familiar accoutrements of western life. We stop at a filling station for coffee. It feels like Europe again, says one of the Group. For me it’s coming home  It’s less than three days but I sense that maybe it feels a bit like that for them too.

This is not intended as a travelogue. But my three days with the CCJ forms the back drop to what I want to write about the Elections.

CCJ Group Communion

The CCJ Group about to celebrate Communion on the Mount of Beatitudes

At lunchtime I left the bus at Capernaum, just below Almagor where we live, to get home to prepare to welcome the Group who, after visiting the Mount of Beatitudes and then  touring the Golan Heights, are coming that evening for cheese and wine, all local, and a chance to meet with a selection of our friends and neighbours.

Among these are:

Karam, the Christian Israeli Arab who had built our house and since become a friend, Shai,  an “aggressively secular  Jewish”  mango farmer, Amnon whom I mentioned earlier, Shlomo  a retired lecturer in Biblical studies at Haifa University with his English and  Christian born wife Anne, and our immediate neighbour Gidi, Dean of Life Sciences at nearby Tel Hai Academic College and a world recognized immunologist. There, by a blazing fire, our Group heard at first hand contrasting views of the Election fiercely debated but all as different from those of the previous day as it was possible to imagine. When it was time to go, the bus driver being about to run out of permitted hours, Avihu had to tear the Group away. I think that to begin with he was troubled that such strong criticisms of different aspects if Israel were being voiced. But I don’t think he need have worried. One of the things about both the Settlers and the Palestinian narratives that we had found most dispiriting was their very consistency, as if always spoken from the same script. As they left Almagor, several members of the Group commented that what was most striking and appealing about the evening was the vibrancy of Israeli life that they had just witnessed.

The next morning as I left Israel for London the final polls were published. Nothing had changed. It was the exit polls that brought the first hint that all was not as expected.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee at Capernaum

What Happened?

Firstly, “King Bibi” is no longer King. Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi”Netanyahu called the election months before he had to, seeking and expecting a Coronation. True he will remain Prime Minister – but he no longer calls the tune. In the outgoing Knesset (Parliament) the  combined Likud and Ysrael Biteinu parties of Bibi and his outrageously outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiborman had 48 seats (out of 120) between them  Now they have 31 – with Lieberman facing criminal charges which disqualify him from office.

So where did the votes go? Mainly it seems to Jewish Home, a new party of the Right created by Naftali Bennett, a new name in the political firmament.

Coming from almost nowhere Jewish Home secured 12 seats. (the polls had given it 15)  Naftali Bennett is evidently smart, is youthful with a young family,  and has a dream CV: a former officer with exemplary combat service  in an elite unit; a technology start up modest millionaire, a “modern orthodox” Jew of secular parents, a former aide of Netanyahu whom he left  (in dismay?) in 2006. Bennett does not believe in the Two State solution. But he is honest enough to say so – unlike Netanyahu who says one thing but believes another. Bennett advocates the Settlers case – but lives in Raa’nanna. He is observant but does not support the more extreme and mercenary positions of the religious parties on whom Netanyahu, though not himself observant, relies. And he has never been in parliament.  One may not agree with Bennett. But he comes across as a wonderfully refreshing face of the Right in Israeli politics.

If that was the Right then what was the situation on the Centre Left?  Hopelessly split it seemed,  between five main Parties: Meretz, the  hugely weakened party of Peace Now; Labour, the party of Rabin but now unimpressively led by former trade unionist Shelley Yacoumovich  who was expected to lead the Opposition; The Zipi Livni party, formed opportunistically by Zipi Livni, former Foreign Minister and deposed leader of Kadima, the party of Sharon, campaigning to renew the Peace Process but despised for Livni’s blatant opportunism; Kadima itself, now facing oblivion; and Yaish Atid (There  is a Future) also formed for this election, largely ignored by the media, led by Yair Lapid, son of a cabinet minister but himself a successful journalist and former telegenic Television presenter and commentator who had hitherto eschewed politics. Languishing in the polls, unable or unwilling to unite, riven by egos, the Centre Lefthad been all but written off in the media and by foreign observers. The ascendency of the Right was a given, the only question being the number of seats going to Bennett’s Jewish Home.

Except this is not what happened. To everyone’s surprise Yaish Atid , with a platform of helping the middle class, reducing the size of the Government, requiring all citizens to do national service, and restarting serious  negotiations with the Palestinian Authority emerged with 19 seats, the second largest party by far. Significantly the Yaish Atid party list is comprised entirely of people, almost half of them women and including a modernist Rabbi and several mayors, who whilst proven in their chosen fields,  like Bennett, have  never been in Parliament,  Meretz also unexpectedly gained seats, with the result that the Centre Left block as a whole and the Right wing and Religious parties are now almost evenly divided.

The opinion polls, right up to the end had been right about only one thing – the number of undecided. Whilst the conventional media had missed the attention Yaish Lapid was giving to – and receiving from the social media, the place to which the social protests of summer 2011 had gravitated.

Overnight it seems that once again there is everything to play for. With socially adept fresh faces on the Left and to the Right, Netanyahu’s outgoing coalition of the Likud, Lieberman and the religious parties looks tired, tawdry and out of touch. The old certainties are no more. Israeli democracy, like the discussion in our house, has shown itself to be vibrant and very much alive.  The electorate, with an unusually high turnout, has proved itself considerably more savvy than the old guard politicians who have paid a big price for taking it for granted. Compared with two weeks ago, the local outlook suddenly seems a lot less bleak.

Photos courtesy of Rev Daf Meirion-Jones



Blog 29 – Istanbul and Ephesus in Turkey……….. and Gaza.

Posted November 27, 2012 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

I have been touched by the many messages of concern that came to me this past week of Operation Defensive Shield. I sensed that a blog was expected. But with so many millions of words being written and instantly circulated,  I didn’t feel that there was anything that I could usefully say that was not already being said. In truth  I didn’t even know what I thought.

I was  in Almagor when it all started, a peaceful  evening interrupted with news and television pictures of the attack on Ahmed al-Jabril – surreal,  just like a computer game – that is until the  following evening’s truly  shocking news of rockets on Tel Aviv . Next day our neighbours’ sons, boys I had watched grow up, began disappearing into the Reserves, together with the newly appointed and long anticipated COO of Amiad Water Systems, 43years old, a Captain in the reserves. That was a shock.
My first war? What to think? What to do?  ” Don’t worry Simon, we’ve been in this movie before” said my friends. “It will end, we don’t know exactly how or when, but it will.  Every few years, the same movie. There’s really nothing you can do”

Susie and I had originally expected to be spending most of November/December together enjoying an Israeli winter. This was not to be, Susie being detained in London by a course that she was following, leaving me with time on my hands. I was due back in London for a night at the month end and, having a standing invitation to Istanbul which I had long wanted to take up, I had decided that this was the moment, my ticket booked for the following Sunday, giving me a week to explore Istanbul and anywhere else in Turkey that took my fancy, – the first time since I was a student that I had been in a strange place completely free, my time entirely my own without pre commitments or expectations.
To go or not to go? I felt bad leaving, but probably worse staying pointlessly. So it was that I spent the second half of Defensive Shield looking on from, of all places, Turkey.

The drive down late Saturday  afternoon to meet friends for dinner in Tel Aviv , before I left the following morning, was weird, the expectation of an imminent ground offensive reinforced by convoys of transports carrying massive armored troop carriers, the like of which I had never seen,  grinding their way slowly  south.

My one connection in Istanbul, my excuse for being there at all, was with the School of Government, Business and Social Sciences at Bahcesehir University, some of  whose faculty members and graduate students Susie and I had hosted at our home in Almagor two years previously.   How this came about is perhaps a tale for another day. Suffice to say that, whilst being  generously entertained in the Faculty Club (see photo 1), after being closely questioned on the view of the Israeli public, I was treated to a masterful tour de force description of the current and historical forces at work in and around Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran,  Saudi, the Gulf and Egypt.
If I can’t say that I left feeling better I  certainly left better informed.

I wonder if under Sarkozy’s influence the EU’s rebuffing of Turkey was not a big mistake.
Istanbul is HUGE. Some 18 million they say, (30 years it  was 3 million) covering a vast area, straddling not just two continents but also connecting two seas, right through the city centre.  Magnificent architecture dominating the skylines, a constant reminder of a long and proud history. (see photo 2). Masses of young people everywhere. In the street people of all ages seem noticeably  friendly helpful, and unthreatening, albeit often with little or no English. I deliberately chose to stay in the old city in a simple un smart pension, close by the historical sights but involving much walking, including alone by night, and never for a second did I feel unsafe. As my very un PC taxi driver explained whilst bringing me in from the airport, ” You walk about completely safe, no nxxxrs here”.  Asking him  about the role of Islam I  was surprised to discover that Turkey followed the European weekend, Saturday and Sunday, that for  most people, certainly in Istanbul if not in the countryside, Islam was for Turkey as Christianity was  in Europe. Although growing stronger.


After some good days in Istanbul, but with rains forecast, I decided to escape to Ephesus, an easy and inexpensive one hour’s flight away, finding warm sunshine and what  promised to be and was the most perfect retreat in a once Greek mountain village close to Ephesus. Ephesus one of the great cities of Roman times, in the First Century CE second only to Rome itself and before the arrival of Christianity moved the centre to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in the fourth Century , the capital of Anatolia, the forerunner of Tutkey. Ephesus had a population of  in excess of 250,000 at a time when London’s was  less than 60,000, was the main port for trade with Asia Minor and beyond, a major cultural and commercial as well as government centre, home to one of the four great libraries of the classical world and in the Temple of Artemis to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


Encountering the reality of Turkey’s heritage, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, I am conscious of how woefully ignorant we are in England, and given its proximity perhaps worse, in Israel of the historical dynamics of this region. A region now stirring, discovering its strength and thrusting its way into the new East tilting, increasingly connected and global  economy and geopolitics of the 21st century.

Which brings me back to Gaza.  And a  few thoughts which strike me:

First,   the unhysterical  resilience, discipline and quiet courage of the Israeli home front, the effectiveness of the home shelter policy and the (man made) miracle of Iron Dome – of which more below. (*2)
Second, the to my British eyes almost unbelievable  and quiet matter of fact heroism of the young and sometimes not so young citizen soldiers called to the reserves, ready and confident to serve in harms way – and no less that of their families . (I happened to be reading The Face of Battle, a study by military historian John Keegan first published in 1976 of what actually happens to soldiers in battle; the individual  experience, the logistics, the confusion,  managing fear, what constitutes  leadership, getting wounded, the  causes and likelihood of death, all as seen through three battles:  Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. Their bravery  seemed all the more poignant).
Next, the uncharacteristic silence and lack of bombast from Natanyahu, Barak and the invisible Lieberman, as they faced the reality of what they had started. (They did not start the rockets, but the assassination of al -Jabril took place  just as an Egyptian brokered cessation of rocket fire was on the table)
Lastly, in the short term at least,  the pointlessness, stupidly and counter productiveness of it all. But longer term,  if nothing changes, the extreme danger inherent for Israel and, if for Israel then also for the region (Remember Samson,  the temple and the Philistines, the then residents of , yes you guessed, Gaza)

I am not sure that the Isrseli public yet sees it, but it seems to me that things are now at a complete impasse. Hamas, Hizbollah and behind them Iran, can provoke and  hurt but  cannot yet destroy Israel, their preposterous but oft  proclaimed wish. Israel can defend itself, for now at least, doing enough damage to its assailants to pause their assaults, but with ground invasion seemingly off the table (*3),  can no  longer realistically imagine defeating them militarily.

So where does that leave matters? I don’t believe that this stasis can last last. The West Bank will not stay quiet. Hamas will find a way to rearm. Hizbollah is armed.  Iran remains defiant  Without political movement there can only be replays , each time with rocket ranges increasing. Replays which  may quite well suit Israel’s enemies with their  large  populations and consequent easy  disregard for human life, but which not withstanding the stoicism under fire and bravery of its people, and the capabilities of its armed forces, must surely become increasingly unpalatable to  a sophisticated but small trading nation such as Israel.

What’s needed is a game changer. Was Gaza a beginning? Of course, it’s far too early to know.  Morsi / Obama working together could be. But does Obama care enough to bother? And what is Mosi’s real objective? Is he a Moslem Brotherhood wolf, disguised in sheep’s clothing,  as many in Israel fear? Or a pragmatist, practicing the art of the possible?  If the former, this bodes ill.   If he is a pragmatist, then what he does  next may well depend on Israel, on what Israel makes possible; a viable Israeli enabled Palestinian  state, initially perhaps on the West Bank alone, sharing Jerusalem, with an agreed resolution of the “refugees” and  a strong but peaceable Israel taking its place within the Sunni Crescent; or an embattled and besieged Israel, suppressing Palestinian aspirations, periodically striking out to defend itself, increasingly at odds with the world,  to be worn down and perhaps some day eliminated?

So what has  Israel’s political establishment taken from this? We won’t begin to know until after the elections in January. For sure they will talk tough. But then? Without a serious move towards a Palestinian state,  options seem to me to to be limited – but then, as my daughter Genevieve recently reminded me, what do we really know?
I think it was Churchill who was reputed to have said “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.” And it was  John Maynard Keynes who remarked “When the facts change, then I change my mind”.

Do Israel’s leaders understand that the world around them has changed? And if so are they capable of changing course? I would like to think so. Because if not I  fear that it  may become all too true that  there really is no (longer any)  partner for peace. Not a happy prospect.

smo near Ephesus, Turkey. 24.11.2012.

*1.Bahcesehir Unviversity. (BAU)
On arrival BAU strongly reminded me of  the London School of Economics.  An independent i.e. non State university started only 12 years ago  BAU now has 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students, in Seven Faculties, teaches exclusively in English, operates a second campus in Berlin and has succeeded in establishing important links with a slew of major universities around the world. If not  yet quite in the top 1000 BAU is advancing at a speed unimaginable in the UK or Israel. No wonder Turkey is powering ahead.

*2. Iron Dome.
The story behind Iron Dome is revealing. It owes its development to Amir Peretz, the  “civilian” Minister of Defence  during the 2006 Lebanon War. Israeli  military doctrine at the time favored offense as the best, and given Israel’s size,  perhaps the only  defense.  Rejected  by the military establishment as being contrary to prevailing doctrine and ridiculously expensive  it was civilian Pertz, a resident of Sderot adjoining the Gaza Strip, who over rode his military and authorized the budget for Iron Dome’s development. Much maligned as weak and incompetent in the aftermath of what was seen as an unsuccessful and badly executed war, today Pertz is a national hero.

*3. Ground  invasion off the table?
Shortly after the Gaza ceasefire,  the Israeli media reported that invasion plans had stopped in their tracks when the Government received intelligence from the Mossad that in the event of a ground invasion Egypt would immediately abrogate it’s peace treaty with Israel.
Add  the resulting loss of any continuing diplomatic support in the West, the global media frenzy that accompanies civilian casualties inevitably arising as a result of Hamas’ human shield tactics, (surely its most potent defense weapon – though seemingly it’s OK for Arabs to kill Arabs),  the effect of extensive Israeli casualties on public opinion, plus the absence of a plausible exit strategy, then at least from the outside, except in  extremis, politically the option of  a ground invasion appears to be  less and less a feasible proposition.

Blog 28 – Bubble

Posted October 8, 2012 by Simon Olswang
Categories: Uncategorized

So I’m back in Almagor, feeling very contented and settled, after the most wonderful summer.  A summer that was extended by our unplanned visit to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival, and rounded off by a joyous celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at our home community, the New North London Synagogue, in London.  What greater pleasure can there be than seeing one’s six grandchildren, of different ages, each in their own way enjoying and  contributing to the vibrant community of which Susie and I were founder members thirty something years ago?  The more time I spend in Israel the more I appreciate the outward looking and humanistic interpretation of traditional Judaism which is the NNLS hallmark.

The first few days back here in Israel were pretty ghastly though.  Mainly because of the weather, cloudy, very hot by day, little cooler by night, no visibility, no sunshine, energy sapping, yuck –  but also because returning to Israel after such a summer of sport, culture and travel is something of a shock.   But now autumn has arrived, Almagor is at peace, the mango harvest is complete, there are blue skies replete with occasional scudding clouds with their promise of rains to come, warm sunshine,  gentle breezes, birdsong as if the birds too are celebrating the end of summer, a reminder of why life here is so appealing.  The mango season here is some kind of hell.  It’s very hot; the men are working in the fields from early morning, before dawn, through until they collapse into bed for a few hours sleep before they face another day.  There’s little social life, little conversation.  It’s intensive for three months.  Then one day, almost, it’s over.  The rest of the year, whilst there is work to do, the pace is quite different – time for holidays, time for travel, time for conversation, time for friends, time for family, time just to have time.

I arrived back for the Succoth holiday.  The Feast of Tabernacles.  Of course rooted in Biblical times it’s agricultural, celebrating the gathering in of the harvest.  In the case of Almagor this means mangoes.  And it’s been a good season, so much to give thanks for.  Judaism separated from the annual agricultural cycle  in this land can’t really be understood.

This Moshav has also succeeded in renewing itself.  Many of the next generation have come back, with families, crèche, and nursery, everywhere the sound of children’s voices.  This next generation is also accepting responsibility for the life of the moshav, already part of the small elected council which manages Moshav affairs.  On Thursday there was word of a 60’s and 70’s concert to be given in the Moshav gardens just along the road from our house.  There was cold beer and people had brought cakes, stuffed fruits, and all sorts of goodies.  Although arranged by the next generation, the concert was for us, the golden oldies:  Songs of the sixties and seventies, performed by a highly competent and wonderfully engaging couple, originally American, though he half British, living on a nearby kibbutz next to Kishorit where my son James lives.  The local kibbutzim have been building small developments of private housing, strengthening a trend for couples from the centre of the country, often once their children have left home, to make their lives in the North.  It was such an unexpectedly good evening, all the songs in English, I was in my element.  Outdoors of course and just two hundred paces from our house.  What bliss.

Then Saturday evening, neighbours had invited me to go with them to the Rosh Pina cinematheque, itself perhaps a worthy subject of a blog, to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”.  We ran into other members of our “tiyul” (hiking) group.  It was fun, and followed by a beer, Guinness in my case, at Jeoni, the outdoor cafe next to the cinematheque.  High life in the Galilee!   I say that jokingly, but when one knows where to find it, there is much on offer.

Of course like most people we live in a bubble.  But within this particular bubble there is a great big elephant.  I refer of course to the unresolved Palestinian conflict, the continued Occupation, and beyond this, the violence, tension and uncertainty all around the region.

Which in a curious way brings me back to Zaytoun.

In my previous blog (27) I recounted my involvement in Zaytoun and its premiere in Toronto.

Fortunately press reviews and initial audience reactions have been universally excellent. I am however aware that a number of Israelis and supporters of Israel who have seen the Film,  among them good friends and family even, have been troubled by seeing on the mainstream big screen such an apparently sympathetic expression of the Palestinian dream of Return.

They worry that this contributes to efforts to de-legitimise Israel.  As to which see my Footnote below.

Whilst their reaction has not come as a surprise it has given me pause to reflect – to reflect on why, despite this concern, as someone who lives in Israel and has been a lifelong, if not uncritical, friend of Israel, I am still happy to see my name on the screen among the credits now that the film is finished.

I feel a need to explain why this is.

Firstly, I believe that it is a tribute to Israel that it can host and participate in the making of a film which portrays the Palestinian dream of return so sympathetically.  It demonstrates that, despite a recent lurch to the Right, Israel remains fundamentally a Liberal Democratic society of free speech and the open expression of a huge plurality of views – hardly the norm in this region.

Beyond this, I believe that the only possibility of Israel achieving the peace and security which has so far eluded it, is to accept that as well at the realisation of the 2000 year old longing of the Jewish people to return to Zion, the creation of the State of Israel, whatever the rights and wrongs, has given rise to a Palestinian narrative of dispossession and return.

The present situation of Israel and the Palestinians was described to me pithily by a great benefactor of Israel at a rather lovely Bar BQ lunch which I attended in Toronto.

“The hot spot for Israel”, she remarked “is security”. “However strong militarily Israel may believe itself to be, the memory of the Holocaust and years of unremitting Arab attacks are never far from mind.  Calls for Israel’s destruction from Iran and its surrogates Hezbollah and Hamas firing rockets from across its borders serve only to feed this deep anxiety, create an even greater sense of vulnerability and distrust of its neighbours and to drive Israel ever further into a siege mentality in which any flexibility in its position is a sign of weakness.

Whilst at the same time, the hot spot for Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular is dignity. The events of 1948 (of which more below) were a humiliation. And almost everything that has happened to the Palestinians since has increased that humiliation, presently fed daily by the petty and not so petty indignities of the continued Occupation and the evident disinterest of the Netanyahu Government in a two state solution”

Strangely I am much less worried by external threats than I am by Israel’s disregard for the needs of the Palestinians. I firmly believe that Israel’s best guarantee of security is that Palestinians should have their own country in which they can take pride; that with ownership comes responsibility; that with pride and responsibility comes dignity. I believe that a people who have something to lose are likely to be better neighbours than people who are constantly reminded (by their leaders and all too often by Israel’s actions) of what they have lost. And I believe that an essential precondition of such a state is that Israel should recognise and acknowledge that there is a Palestinian narrative which, like Israel.  is not going to go away and which, for its own well being, Israel must accommodate.

Of course this throws up many questions. Questions such as: What of the settlers ? (Let them stay, but in Palestine – Israel has 1.2 million Arabs, why should Palestine not accept 200,000 Jews if they want to stay?); What about Jerusalem?  (Share it. Since 1967 it probably has never been as divided in practice as is today);  And what about Israel’s security? (The Palestinian state must be demilitarised with recognition that any attack on Israel from Palestine will be treated as an act of war); to name but a few.

I am not optimistic that this will come about. But hopefully perhaps Zaytoun may play a tiny part.

Footnote – Efforts to de-legitimise Israel

Whilst I believe that it is only by recognising the Palestinian narrative that Israel will reach a solution to the present conflict, the Arabs constantly use the Refugees to seek to delegitimize Israel.   For three generations the surrounding Arab states have refused to absorb the original refugees into their huge countries – at a time when Israel, whose Jewish population in 1948 was only some 650,000, absorbed well in excess of 1 million Jews displaced from neighbouring Arab lands. The continued refugee status of the descendants of those original Palestinian refugees, many to this day forced by their host nations to live in squalid camps (as depicted in the Film), is a disgrace – but also a fact.

Attempts to de legitimise Israel go back to 1948 and before. The mantra of the early Jewish pioneers that they found in Palestine “a land without a people for a people without a land” was never literally true but there was something in it.

Conrad Black, the Catholic former owner of the Daily Telegraph and Jerusalem Post   put it succinctly in his recently published “A Matter of Principle” **

“I’ve always understood the Arab view that the terrible things that were done to the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s were not done by the Arabs and that the great powers had sought to expiate their own indifference to the plight of the Jews by giving them Arab land.  But it was not Arab land.  There had been a continuous presence in what is now Israel for thousands of years, and the land that is Israel has never been governed by Arabs;  the Romans were replaced by the Byzantines, then the Turks, then the Crusaders, the Turks again, the British, and finally the Jews”. 

In 1948 The British Mandate in Palestine was ended when the United Nations partitioned the territory of Mandate Palestine between a small Jewish state (Israel) and a larger portion given to Jordan. On the day that  Israel was established the nascent Jewish state was attacked by the armies of five surrounding Arab League  countries, Trans Jordan ( as it was then called recognising that it extended on both banks of the River Jordan into what had been Palestine), Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, aiming “ to drive the Jews into the sea”.  It was the defeat of the Arab armies by the new born state of Israel that created the Palestinian Refugees –  some “temporarily” leaving their homes at the instigation of the Arab League  Armies to clear the way for their destruction of  the new Jewish state but many others undoubtedly “encouraged “ to leave by  defending Jewish forces.  Had the Arabs accepted the UN Partition of Mandate Palestine there would have been no refugees. But this the world is encouraged to forget.

But this is history.  The self perpetuation of the Palestinian refugees, however cynical and wrongful, and their use as a threat to the very existence of Israel remains a fact with which Israel must contend.  I believe that Israel can do this effectively only by moving out of the  its “bunker” comfort zone , by doing and most importantly by being seen to be doing everything in its power to end its occupation and create and support a prosperous Palestinian state.

Alas, except perhaps in Almagor, these days that is not a very popular view around these parts.


Almagor, Upper Galilee 9th October 2012


**( A Matter of Principle, Black’s description written from jail of his downfall and fight back, is an extraordinary tale, replete with often breathtakingly waspish descriptions of people and events with little quarter given or asked, which makes great reading for anyone interested in an inside look at the media, the law, corporate governance and human affairs generally in the upper echelons of Toronto, New York, Washington and London society.)