Wednesday 31 March 2010

Balancing the UK Budget?

The recent budget by Aistair Darling has once again thrust the economy into the forefront of the coming election battleground. And as usual the debate about the economy is fixated on the need to get the deficit down as quickly as possible. Furthermore there is an apparent iron rule that this means savage cuts in public services and the only debate is around when to start cutting and how deep the cuts are to be. We even have the spectacle of a Labour, albeit a New Labour Chancellor almost boasting that another Labour government would enforce cuts even more savage than those introduced by the Thatcher governments of the early 1980s. What is the world coming to?

For even the government’s own figures and projections give the lie to this unrelenting emphasis on cuts in public services. During his budget speech the Chancellor boasted about how the UK is the world's sixth biggest exporter of goods and the second largest exporter of services. He went on to quote IMF forecasts which show that the British economy will suffer less than Germany, less than Japan, less than Italy, and less than the euro area as a whole this year. The Chancellor was also quite upbeat about the economy as a whole, pointing out that, “because of our underlying strength, the measures we are taking, domestically and internationally, I expect to see growth resume towards the end of the year. The British economy is diverse, flexible and resilient – which is why we can be confident in recovery.”

In which case, why all the hurry to cut and slash? If the UK economy along with the rest of the world is going to resume reasonable levels of growth, then the deficit will tumble anyway. If in addition the government was to introduce a fairer system of taxation, one that forced the rich and the well-off to make an equitable contribution to the general well being of the country, there might be even less need for cuts in public services. After all as the Chancellor admitted the one-off City bonus tax had raised £2bn rather than the expected £550m. If this became a yearly tax and tax rates were raised for those who have benefitted most from the past 20 years or so, then quite a substantial sum of money would be raised year in year out.

If despite the recovery and a fairer taxation system, public spending still has to be reduced then there are other forms of public spending that should be first on the list for cutting. For example our bloated and expensive military, including our so-called independent nuclear weapons. This kind of public spending is not only very expensive but brings very little, if any, benefit to the majority of UK citizens. Unlike the bulk of public services, such as education, health, social services and public sector pensions, which provide real help to millions of people.

Of course the people who dominate our political debate - most politicians in the three main UK parties, the journalists and reporters in the mainstream media - newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, the representatives of special interest groups - the CBI and the Institute of Directors etc., none of them want a real debate about the future of our economy and least of all a debate on fair taxes. It is curious that nearly all of the people who vigorously call for cuts in public services are very rich or at least earn substantial salaries. Perhaps there is a bit of self interest going on here. When our leading pundits and politicians keep repeating the mantra that the country cannot afford to pay for good public services or public pensions, what they really mean is that they do not want to pay more in tax.

I have a little proposal to make. Namely that in future before anyone advocates the need for more cuts in public services, they have to declare how much they earn, what other wealth they have, whether their children go to state schools or private schools, whether they have private health insurance and what pension provisions they have. There is something distasteful about the rich advocating cuts in public services that they themselves almost certainly do not use or need.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Champions League - the Quarter-Finals

The Champions League has once again reached the quarter final stage. My predictions from last autumn as to the likely semi-finalists are not looking too good. Two, Real Madrid and Chelsea have fallen by the wayside, leaving Barcelona and Manchester United as the survivors. As the draw would have it they are on course to repeat last season’s final. However I for one would not bet on it. In fact I won’t be making any predictions at all. Though I will say that Manchester United look more likely to reach the final than Barcelona.

Barça are having a strange kind of season. They have amassed more points than last season in the league, yet are only level on points with Real Madrid. Which goes to show how well Real have done and makes their failure to beat Lyon all the more surprising. Barça are also nothing like as convincing as last season. They are still winning and sometimes well, but too often they struggle to win matches that last season they would have won comfortably. Overall in the past month they have given the ball away needlessly more times than in the whole of last season. This is most marked in the defence which has shown alarming signs of inconsistency. And up front they are very reliant on Lionel Messi. Just as well the wee man is having such a great season. But even he cannot win every match on his own. Henry hardly plays now and when he does is but a pale shadow of his former self. Young Pedro has done well, but does not score anything like as many goals as Henry in his prime. While Ibrahimović is having a good first season with Barça, he has recently gone through a long barren spell. However the bright spot is that he has now scored in each of his last three games and maybe he is about to embark on a prolific scoring run. If not it is very hard to see Barça winning anything this season.

Back to the Champions League. The big surprise this season, apart from the continuing failure of Real Madrid, is the halving of representation from England. Only two English clubs this year as opposed to the more recent four. There is a welcome return of French teams and this time we have two - Bordeaux and Lyon. As they meet each other in the quarters France is guaranteed one semi-final place. Well done France. However, once again there is only one team from outwith the Big Five countries - this year it is CSKA from Russia.

A brief overview of the quarter finalists from the last three seasons - including this one, shows up the extent to which the Champions League has become evermore the almost exclusive preserve of teams from the Big Five countries ie England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Latterly it has almost become a reverse of the Armada in which a solitary Barcelona repels the challenge of the big spending English giants. The figures are quite fascinating and show the extent of English dominance of the latter stages. Of the 24 places available at the quarter final stages in the last three years, English clubs have taken an astonishing 10, which amounts to almost 42%

The rest are pretty much nowhere. Spain is the next highest with Spanish clubs taking up just four places. Even this is a bit misleading as three of these places were taken by just one club - Barcelona, which means only two Spanish clubs have made the quarter finals in the last three seasons.

When it comes to clubs from the Big Five, no less than 21 of the available quarter final places have been taken by clubs from these five countries. In each of these seasons only one quarter finalist has come from a country outwith the Big Five. The successful outsiders were - CSKA, Porto and Fenerbahçe. Which also shows that none of the other countries has been able to mount a consistent challenge.

The dominance of the latter stages of the Champions League is even more pronounced if you look at the clubs involved. Fifteen teams have reached at least one quarter final in the last three years. However almost two thirds of these places have been taken by only six teams. Three clubs have reached this stage in each of the last three years - Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United. A further three - Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern Mũnchen - have reach the quarter finals on two occasions.

Another fascinating and perhaps surprising feature of recent quarter finals is the complete absence of former European giants such as Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus. Inter Milan, who made it this year, are the only one of the former kings of Italian and European football to have escaped the recent decline of Italian clubs.

Will this current trend continue? I thought Real Madrid were very unlucky to lose against Lyon. In both matches Real dominated, but just couldn’t get the goals their play deserved. With the squad at their disposal I find it hard to believe they will not be back among the elite pretty soon. As for Italy, football there still seems to be in crisis with no obvious way forward. While Inter’s defeat of Chelsea was a very good result and performance, the way AC Milan were taken apart by Manchester United shows that in general Italian clubs still have a long way to go to recover their former glory. A lot will depend on whether the English Premiership can continue to attract funny money from all over the globe. Only four clubs can qualify for the Champions League, so at some stage, some of the money men will realise that their team is never going to regularly reach this particular nirvana. At which point the money behind English football’s current dominance may begin to dry up. And sooner or later, the likes of AC Milan, Roma and Juventus will get their act together. Once again though, no predictions - as they say, football is a funny old game.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Water in Israel/Palestine

Last Monday, 22nd March, was World Water Day which was initiated by the United Nations in 1992 with the aim of drawing attention to the importance of fresh water and its availability. This year Tayside for Justice in Palestine mounted a street art installation to highlight the diversion and theft by Israel of water from occupied Palestinian land. Photo at end.

Since the 1967 war Israel has been in control of all the main water sources in Israel/Palestine. These include:

  • The upper Jordan river basin;
  • the Golan heights area, which includes Lake Tiberius;
  • the large underground reservoirs in the West Bank.

As a result of this Israeli control there is now a huge imbalance between access to water by Israelis compared to Palestinians. For example here is a summary of Water Usage in the West Bank

  • Of the water available from West Bank aquifers, Israel uses 73%, West Bank Palestinians use 17%, and illegal Jewish settlers use 10%.
  • While 10-14% of Palestine’s GDP is agricultural, 90% of them must rely on rain-fed farming methods. Israel’s agriculture is only 3% of their GDP, but Israel irrigates more than 50% of its land.
  • Three million West Bank Palestinians use only 250 million cubic meters per year (83 cubic meters per Palestinian per year) while six million Israelis enjoy the use of 1,954 million cubic meters (333 cubic meters per Israeli per year), which means that each Israeli consumes as much water as four Palestinians. Israeli settlers are allocated 1,450 cubic meters of water per person per year.
  • Israel consumes the vast majority of the water from the Jordan River despite only 3% of the river falling within its pre-1967 borders. Israel now diverts one quarter of its total water consumption through its National Water Carrier from the Jordan River, whereas Palestinians have no access to it whatsoever due to Israeli closures.

In addition Israeli actions continue to discriminate against Palestinians. This includes not allowing new wells to be drilled by Palestinians and confiscating many wells for Israeli use. Israel also sets quotas on how much water can be drawn by Palestinians from existing wells. Furthermore when supplies of water are low in the summer months, the Israeli water company Mekorot closes the valves which supply Palestinian towns and villages so as not to affect Israeli supplies. This means that illegal Israeli settlers can have their swimming pools topped up and lawns watered while Palestinians living next to them, on whose land the settlements are situated, do not have enough water for drinking and cooking.

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

The Water Wall

It is interesting and a little suspicious to note that the so-called Security Wall being built by Israel just happens to syphon off even more Palestinian water for the exclusive benefit of Israelis. The Wall is not only an Apartheid Wall, but also a water wall. Some of the largest Israeli settlements (such as Ariel and Qedumin) are built over the Western mountain aquifer, directly in the middle of the northern West Bank agricultural districts, and this is exactly where the wall cuts deepest into Palestinian territory to surround and annex this vital water source. In the West Bank, around 50 groundwater wells and over 200 cisterns have been destroyed or isolated from their owners by the Wall. This water was used for domestic and agricultural needs by over 122,000 people. To build the Wall, 25 wells and cisterns and 35,000 meters of water pipes have also been destroyed.

The above information mainly comes from an American site - If Americans knew - which is dedicated to informing Americans and others about the true situation in Israel/Palestine. You can access the full article here.

All this of course amounts to theft on a grand scale. Israeli actions are doubly illegal. Under international law it is illegal for Israel to expropriate the water of the Occupied Palestinian Territories for use by its own citizens, and doubly illegal to expropriate it for use by illegal Israeli settlers. Also under international law, Israel owes Palestinians reparations for past and continuing use of water resources. This should include interest due to loss of earnings from farming.

Of course Israel has never given much respect to international law, nor to UN resolutions. The de facto annexation and control of water in the occupied Palestinian territories has always been, alongside the colonisation of land, one of Israel’s priorities. This long-standing aim of the Jewish state has been confirmed by confidential documents published by the British Foreign Office, in which David Ben-Gurion, writing in 1941, said, "We have to remember that for the Jewish state's ability to survive it must have within its borders, the waters of the [rivers] Jordan and Litani".

Israel gets away with all this due to its overwhelming military might, payed for incidentally by US taxpayers. And without American pressure it is unlikely that Israel will make even the most minor concession to international law. The recent spat between Israel and the USA over more illegal house building in occupied East Jerusalem may cause some in the US to reconsider their carte blanche approach to Israel, but don’t bet on it.

So the next time you enjoy a glass of fresh cool water, think of the poor Palestinians, denied equitable access to their own water by rapacious Israelis.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Handle with Care

This was the reading group’s book of the month for April, and the first time I’ve read a book by Jodi Picoult. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found the novel very disappointing. The writing is fine, if on the simple and easy reading variety. But the plot was to me plain implausible.

The novel is about the O’Keefe family’s travails in bringing up a child who suffers from brittle bones, or osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), to give it its proper name. The family find out from an scan at 27 weeks that their baby has OI, but go ahead with the birth and spend the next five years or so caring for their child, Willow, with all the difficulties, stresses and expenses that this involves. So far OK. Then, by chance they discover that they might be able to win a very, very large sum of money to help care for Willow. However to do this means they have to sue the hospital for wrongful birth. Which means in effect that if they had known earlier, at 18 weeks, that Willow had OI, they would have aborted her. Now, these things happen, but in this case it is just absurd. For everyone knows, even the family’s attorney, that there is no way that this couple would have aborted their baby. The parents, Charlotte and Sean are practicing catholics and everything that we hear about them - from their own mouths - makes clear that they would never have chosen an abortion. Charlotte is only doing this for the money. She is prepared to lie on oath - all for the money. Even her husband, the baby’s father, decides to testify for the defence, as does their other, older daughter. Yet somehow Charlotte wins the case - seems pretty unbelievable to me.

What makes the novel even worse is that just about everyone of any import has their own personal issues. To start with the person they have to sue - the obstetrician, is Charlotte’s best friend. Their attorney is adopted and is trying to find her birth mother. And as a result of the case all the other relationships break down. Charlotte and Sean separate and he files for divorce. Their elder daughter suffers from bulimia and self harming. The obstetrician and her husband drift apart. It quickly descends into an average made for TV melodramatic tearjerker.

Despite winning the case the family derive no real benefit and the ending is just so far fetched as to make a mockery of the whole novel. A real cop-out of an ending. The novel is written as if it was the memoirs of the main protagonists, at least all those in the O’Keefe family, plus their attorney and the obstetrician. So there is no pretence to offer a balanced account, which would have given us other voices. The novel does raise some serious and important issues about children with disabilities, parenting, lawsuits for example. Unfortunately this particular novel does no justice to any of them.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Nick Clegg - Kingmaker?

It gets ever more difficult to take the LibDems seriously as a political party. The recent attempts by their leader, Nick Clegg, to evade questions about what the LibDems would do if no party wins an overall majority at the next UK general election is a case in point. Now this is exactly the outcome that all LibDems want - a hung Parliament in which the LibDems could play the role of kingmaker. So this is a serious question. Yet what does Nick Clegg, prospective kingmaker say? To absolutely deny that he could ever be the kingmaker. Why, he asserts, it is the 45 million voters who will be the kingmakers. It is the voters who will decide on the outcome of the general election. Now this is just arrant nonsense and it is hard to know whether Nick Clegg is merely a buffoon or an inveterate liar.

For this is not simply a matter of semantics. The LibDems after all are the party of constitutional reform. In particular they go on and on about the need for a fairer voting system - one that is based on proportional representation. Now they do so because they know how the current first past the post system works and how unfair it is. Not only is our current system unfair, it is also unpredictable. Each voter in the UK votes in a single member constituency and therefore can only affect the outcome in just one seat. One out of over 650 seats! There is simply no way in which a voter can influence the overall outcome of an election. Let us assume that a majority of the electorate would prefer an outcome in which the Labour party was the largest party but well short of an overall majority, and the LibDems increased their representation so that together they could form a coalition government. This may well be the case, but there is no way an individual voter can knowingly achieve this overall outcome. Even in his or her own constituency there is no way of knowing which result would best contribute to this overall outcome. If you vote Labour to keep the Conservative out, you then run the risk that the Labour party might win an absolute majority. If you vote LibDem you run the risk that the Conservatives might win that particular seat. This is the inherent unfairness and unpredictability of our current lousy system. And one must assume that all LibDems know this. So either Nick Clegg is an ignoramus who knows nothing about how our voting system works or he is just another lying politician.

I personally go for the lying. For this unwillingness to declare their intentions before an election is a long standing LibDem tradition. Again this is strange, given that the LibDems are so much in favour of proportional representation which normally results in a hung parliament and thus a coalition government. In which case you would think that the electorate would be entitled to known in advance what each party would do. In other words who would co-operate with whom and over what. However the LibDems have never shown the slightest inclination to be that honest with the electorate. In Scotland where we do have a fairer voting system and hung parliaments are the norm, the usual LibDem tactic is to say that the more LibDem MSPs there are, the more LibDem polices they can deliver. Which at one level is true. However what it does not do in any way whatsoever, is inform the electorate of which LibDem policies will be delivered. Thus as a potential LibDem voter you might be particularly enticed by two or three of their policies. However, when it comes to forming a government, the LibDems may only be able to secure agreement of some of their other policies. These may even be ones you didn’t actually like and if you had known in advance that it was these policies that would be delivered, you may well have decided not to vote LibDem after all. This is why the continued refusal of Nick Clegg to be genuinely open and honest about what he and his party will and will not do in the result of a hung parliament is just playing fast and loose with the electorate.

Go on, NIck, be honest with us. We have no chance of playing kingmakers, but you do. So, tell us all what it is you would do. Do you trust us or do you also treat us all like mugs?

Saturday 13 March 2010


This little photo essay is dedicated to the arrival of Spring and the focus is on all things green. Green is of course associated with renewal and new growth, so is an apt choice for Springtime. And there is plenty of green around the garden now. Some of it new growth and some surviving from last year.

Clockwise from the top left you can see some bergenia or as it is sometimes known, elephant’s ears; tulip leaves; an unknown shrub; snowdrops and early growth from a campanula.

Green is the predominant colour in the countryside most of the year. One of the things that amazes me about green is the enormous variety of hues and shades that you get in nature. There seems to more variations of green than of any other colour. Here are some photos of the Scottish countryside, taken at various seasons.

Again from the top left, clockwise; the Eden estuary from just outside St. Andrews - you may just make out some golfers on the links; Kathleen taking in a bit of sunshine in a lovely Crail garden; some water plants in a pond in the grounds of Falkland Palace; Castle Campbell nestling in the surrounding hills, above Dollar; lobster creels on the pier at Crail harbour with the green covered cliffs beyond.

The next group of photos shows a range of landscapes from Switzerland.

Clockwise - a lovely and colourful meadow in Kilchberg; the hilly countryside of the Klettgau in Kanton Schaffhausen; the summit of the Schnebelhorn, the highest mountain in Kanton Zürich; looking up to a church near Hallau in Kanton Schaffhausen; a traditional farmhouse on the lower slopes of the Schnebelhorn.

Green of course is also the colour of many fruits and vegetables. Below is an appetizing plate full of delicious grapes. The photo was taken in Pompeia Turi’s house in Francavilla Fontana in Puglia, during our holiday there in September 2008. Pompeia is Emma’s mother-in-law. The grapes were a gift from Pompeia’s brother who grows and harvests his own grapes. He also brought us absolutely delicious figs.

The following photos show some fruit and veg bought in our local supermarket in Dundee - peppers, okra, limes, apples and pears.

Green is a colour I use quite a lot in my stitching pieces. I don’t have a large selection of green threads, so I may have to add to my collection. Below is a photo of the seven shades of green currently in my stash.

I have never had much in the way of green coloured clothes, apart from the odd T-shirt or so. I might change this as green is a very relaxing and calming colour. However all three grandsons wear green clothes regularly. Below is a collage of all three of them attired in green. You can just about make out all three. The backgrounds are the Zürichsee and the sand dunes at St. Andrews. This is the first time I have tried this type of collage. It is a multiple exposure in which each picture is superimposed over one another. I used Picasa photo editing software for this.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Icelandic Lessons?

For such a very small country, population only 320,000, Iceland has been much in the news recently. Particularly in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Here Unionists of all hues have rushed with undisguised glee to use the temporary difficulties of Iceland to further their own political agenda. Specifically they claim that the financial and economic challenges facing Iceland somehow proves that Scotland could not survive as an independent country. The fate of Iceland is a lesson to us all, they loudly and incessantly proclaim. However a closer look at the Iceland affair shows that there are many lessons to be learned, none of them of much succour to Unionists.

In the first place the glee with which UK politicians and commentators have pounced on the current and almost certainly temporary difficulties in Iceland leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. The sight and sound of politicians and commentators from the UK of all places deigning to lecture Icelanders and Scots is breathtaking in its arrogance and its ignorance. Surely this is not the behaviour that Iceland would have expected from a friendly neighbour? But of course the UK is not much of a friendly neighbour. Witness their continuing attempts to force punitive interest rates on Iceland for the repayment of their debts. Not to mention the UK’s penchant for invading and occupying other countries. So lesson number one is that the UK as usual proves itself to be a nasty little bully all too keen to lecture and boss around others. Why would we in Scotland want to remain part of this Union?

This posturing on the part of the UK is even more galling when nearly everyone is aware of the extent to which the UK was partly responsible for the whole global financial crisis in the first place. The incredibly lax regulation in London for financial companies and the gung-ho approach of major UK banks were significant factors in the development of the crisis, much more so than the three Icelandic banks. It is not as if the UK economy is in such a healthy state either. With a national debt and budget deficit approaching Greek dimensions, and an economy still showing little or no signs of recovery, you would have thought that the UK was in no position to lecture anyone. So lesson number two is that the UK for all its bluster is deep in dire economic straits. Why would we in Scotland want to remain part of this declining economy?

Despite its current financial and economic difficulties, Iceland as a country has not collapsed. And most significantly of all from the Unionist perspective, no-one in Iceland has suggested that the answer to their problems is to give up their independence and become part of Denmark once again. Instead Icelanders are facing up to the situation facing them, and trying to learn their own lessons from what happened. In particular they seem determined not to ever again allow their country to become prey to greedy financial speculators. The near future may be painful with cutbacks and the proverbial tightening of belts. However they are able to use their independence to a) fight off the attempts from the UK and the Netherlands to impose punitive conditions; b) work out their own solutions which involve a fair sharing of the burdens and c) rebalance their economy to avoid overdependence on any one sector.

Sooner or later the UK too will have to pay the price for its role in the crisis. This too will be painful and judging from the prescriptions from the leading political parties it is unlikely to be equitable. As usual in the UK it will be the poor and the less well off who will bear the burden of repaying the debt. A debt substantially the result of very rich bankers and other financial speculators. There is unlikely to be much attempt at rebalancing the UK economy and our dependence on footloose finance will continue. Nobody in the UK seems to be willing to even break up the “too big to fail” banks that helped get us into this mess. So lesson number three is that the UK faces an uncertain, but certainly painful future. And it is not as if Scotland is going to be immune from this pain. Once again, why would we in Scotland want to remain part this unjust and skewed Union?

One of the most intriguing questions which this whole affair raises is just why are the Unionists in England so, so keen on keeping Scotland within the Union? And just about everyone in England is a Unionist. All the major UK parties and most of the minor parties are strongly in favour of keeping Scotland in the UK. One can reasonably ask why? After all they spend virtually all their time lecturing us here in Scotland on how poor we are and how without this largesse from England we would be living in deep poverty. If this was even remotely true, then at least some of the political parties and the leading political commentators would be advocating independence - for England. But no, none of them do so. Could it just be that for all their bluster, the Unionist know that without Scotland it is England that would suffer most? After all, though Scotland represents only about 10% of the UK it has a much larger share of the natural resources. The revenues from Scotland’s share of North Sea oil and gas have played and continue to play a crucial part in the UK’s economy. Without Scotland, and possibly Wales, England reverts to a very small country indeed. No longer Great Britain, but mere little England. Would England on its own continue to drum up the necessary support to retain the UK’s veto on the Security Council? Without Scotland would England on its own be able to persevere with its imperial delusions of world power status? So lesson number four is that it is England that has most to lose from Scottish independence. Or to be more precise it is the delusional English elites that have most to lose. The majority of English people would probably welcome a rebalancing of England’s economy and place in the world. So the final lesson is that Scottish independence would not only be good for Scotland but would also be good for England.

Sunday 7 March 2010


We are now well into March and already there is already a noticeable change in the weather. It is becoming slightly warmer and there is more daylight around. All this is most welcome as it has now been officially confirmed that here in Scotland winter was the coldest on record for over 60 years. Certainly felt like that. I usually reckon on March as the beginning of Spring which continues through April and May. Though there does not seem to be much agreement as to when Spring does begin or indeed end. This year the Spring Equinox comes on the 20th March. Now, on the basis that equi in a word means the middle of something, that would imply that 20th March is the middle of Spring. Not many people would agree with that. But our language does seem to be a bit at odds with our experience of the seasons. Whatever, there are now clear signs of new growth and colour even in our unkempt garden. Snowdrops and yellow crocuses brighten up our walk to the front door.

The rest of the garden I am afraid is still covered in leaves and other plant detritus from last year. I don’t want to frighten anyone with photos of that mess. Still, it all means that I will have to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time in the garden during the rest of this month - the sins of laziness come back to haunt us.

March does not seem to a prolific month for festivals, at least not this year as Lent and Carnival took place in February. However March is the month for celebrating the patron saints of two of our sister nations - Wales and Ireland. The Welsh start things off on the 1st March with St. David’s Day. While this is obviously a big event in Wales, it has never spread much to other places. I don’t remember any St. David’s events here in Scotland. On TV we would see colourful scenes from Wales of people dressed up in traditional costumes with giant leeks everywhere, but not much else. Unlike the Irish who seem to have turned St. Patrick’s Day into a global event. You can find Irish pubs everywhere, but I cannot recall a single Welsh pub anywhere. Whatever, it will be hard to escape St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th. There will two parades in Scotland - in Glasgow and Coatbridge. Plus no doubt plenty of singing and dancing in pubs and halls around the country. If you want to check what’s on in your area go here.

In St. Andrews March sees the annual poetry festival. Though poetry is the main focus, the festival tries to show poetry in all its many forms. So music, dance, film and visual art all feature prominently in the festival. One of the events I definitely want to see is a one woman stage show based on The World’s Wife, a sequence of poems by Caron Ann Duffy, now the UK’s Poet Laureate. You can check out the full programme here.

Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday also falls in March. This seems to more of a commercial enterprise than a genuine celebration. Certainly I have no recollection of Mother’s Day while growing up as a young child. But that may be more a reflection of me than anything else. Still it is a well hyped time nowadays. With both our mothers now dead, it is Kathleen’s turn to get all the goodies on Mother’s Day. All gifts gratefully accepted.

This year the main Easter celebrations will come in April. However Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week fall on the 28th. As a predominantly Protestant country there has never been much fanfare associated with Palm Sunday nor Holy Week as such. Sevilla in Spain is the place to go for colour and passion at this time. It’s usually warmer too.

March is also important for other faiths. The Sikhs celebrate the start of their New Year on 14th of March. So if you have Sikhs around your neighbourhood check out for any celebrations. Another New Year starts on 16th March. This is Nav Varsh, which is the beginning of the New Year for most Hindus in northern India. According to the traditional Vikram Samvat uni-solar calendar, it will be Vikram Samvar 2067 year. There is a small Hindu community in Dundee so I must see if they will be celebrating on or around the 16th.

Buddhist also have an important festival in March - Magha Puja - which falls on 30th. This is apparently the second most significant Buddhist festival. Buddhists attend services at temples and offer food and other gifts to monks. It is also common to walk around a shrine or Buddha image three times as a gesture of respect for the Three Jewels -- the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The 30th is also the start of the Jewish Festival of Passover. Passover will continue into April.

For my branch of the Rutherfords, March has been quite an eventful month. There was one death in March, my uncle Jim - James Rutherford - who passed away on 6th March 1989. My father’s older brother, Jim went to live in the United States and settled in Connecticut. I remember meeting Jim once when he visited us all in St. Andrews. A lovely big man with a bushy beard.

Three of my great-great-great-great-grandparents have March connections. Margaret Tulloch, who went on to marry Robert Rutherford, was born on 8th March in 1772 in Dunfermline. Their son James Rutherford would marry a Janet Mair, the daughter of James Mair and Ann Watson, my other two great-great-great-great-grandparents, who were married on 19th March 1786 in Monimail Church, North East Fife.

Two of my great-great-grandparents, Henry Rodger and Elizabeth Lang, both from Kilconquhar in Fife, were married on 26th March 1836 in Carnbee Church. Carnbee was a small farming village, which is now almost deserted, with only a few cottages remaining. However the church still stands with fine views over the Firth of Forth out to the Isle of May and North Berwick.

March is particularly special to us as our lovely second daughter, Elena Victoria was born on 1st March 1976, in Craigtoun Maternity Hospital, just outside St. Andrews. Like her sister, Elena has always enjoyed birthday parties. Here is her about to cut her fifth birthday cake.

The Daffodil is the flower most commonly associated with March. A little strange as the flower for December is the paperwhite Narcissus, which of course is the same flower family. Presumably white is not the main colour for March. I have select a lovely yellow daffodil with orange centre. The Daffodil is associated with rebirth, hope, wealth and friendship.

If you fancy a gemstone for March, you have a bit of a choice.

The modern, American gemstone is Aquamarine, which represents faithfulness, courage and friendship. The ayurvedic and other older traditions favour the bloodstone. This is considered a stone of courage. It was once believed to overcome enemies, to open locked doors and break down blockages. It was carried by soldiers to avoid being wounded and to stop bleeding. Bloodstone is still used today as a health talisman and to heal illnesses related to the blood and circulatory system. According to legend bloodstone came about as a result of some drops of Christ’s blood falling on and staining some jasper which lay about the foot of the cross.

A suitable image for March which sees the beginning of Holy Week. Whatever your faith, if any, I hope you find something to celebrate this month.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Israeli Apartheid Week

This week sees the start of the 6th Annual Israeli Apartheid Week. This offers all of us the opportunity to reflect on the true nature of Israel. Apartheid is not a word that should be used lightly. However in the case of Israel the word does seem to fit, as more and more people find out about the reality of what Israeli campaigner, Yaniv Reich, calls “the system of institutionalized and violent discrimination in place in Israel/Palestine”. It is also an opportunity to think about what we can contribute to a just resolution of the conflict by supporting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

As a precursor to Israeli Apartheid Week, February 25th was Open Shuhada Street Day. Shuhada Street was the main market and commercial section of the West Bank city of Hebron. What has and continues to happen in Hebron is an example in miniature of the injustices perpetrated by Israeli apartheid. Shortly after the 1967 war, Israeli settlers illegallly took over part of the old town in Hebron. In 1994 Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 and injured 150 Palestinians when he opened fire in the Ibrahimi Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) during prayers. The response of the Israeli government to this unprovoked attack on innocent Palestinians? Some kind of punishment for the guilty? Removal of the illegal settlers? No chance. Instead, citing fear of Palestinian revenge attacks, Shuhada street was closed to Palestinians in order to protect the, by now, 800 or so illegal settlers. To ensure their safety Israel maintains a single battalion of 500 soldiers stationed in Hebron. There are in addtion about 140 border police, who control the Tomb of Patriarchs, and 30-50 police officers in the city. All to protect 800 illegal settlers!

The end result of all this is that in order to protect these illegal Israeli settlers, who make up less than 1% of the population of Hebron, the government of Israel controls 20% of the area of Hebron. In so doing it denies the local Palestinian residents access to what was the old commercial heart of the town. Sounds a lot like apartheid to me. To get a better idea of what it is like to live there here is a statement by a Palestinian resident of Shuhada Street.

What it means to re-open Shuhada Street..

Many people might think why do we need to have Shuhada Street open.. it's one of the most important streets in Hebron, as it connects the northern part of the city to the south. Not only this, it also connects people.. many people have lost their social life when the Street was closed, because their relatives and friends do not like to be stopped at the check-points or in the streets when they come to visit. And when they visited in the past, it used to be a walking distance, but now they need to take a detour around the city to get to the house they desire. People now think ten times when they plan a visit to house at Shuhada Street. First, they have to consider the time that they will take for the visit, and the money they will spend. Many people lost their businesses when Shuhada Street was closed and the job opportunities are less available these day than before, so they have to think money wise.

Personally, I live at Shuhada Street but I can't use my front door because I am Palestinian. My neighbours made an opening in their wall to make me a passage so that I don't become a hostage in my house. In fact I live like a prisoner in my house.. I have installed some wire fence on my balconies to be protected from the stones "gifts" that the settlers always throw at the house. Before the fence, I could not open my shutters. If by mistake I left the shutters open, I would immediately receive the "gifts" from these settlers. I still receive these "gifts" but they do not hit me like before. I collected these "gifts" and used them to decorate my garden and wrote the word "peace" in Arabic.

It's really hard to live where I am because everything is closed, I used to go shopping nearby, but now if I go shopping, I need to walk a distance and carry my shopping because I can't bring my shopping home in a car. One time I had a severe kidney pain, I could not have the ambulance in front of my door to go to the hospital. My brother's house is 2 minutes walk from Shuhada, but I need to walk about 20 minutes to get to his house.

The Israeli army and police always tell us that they are in the area for the protection of both Palestinians and Israelis, but in fact, they stormed my house 3 times in one week to check about a complaint from a soldier that some children threw stones at the street from my house, although I live only with my mother and have no children. Many times the settler children and youth threw stones at my house and I filed complaints to the soldiers and police, and they did nothing to stop it.

Opening Shuhada Street is a big need for peace and humanity.

Zleikha Muhtaseb, Principal of the al-Ibrahimiya Kindergarten
Shuhada Street

The above statement was reproduced from The Magnes Zionist blog. You can get the full post here.

The day of action in support of the plight of Palestinians in Hebron is sponsored by Open Shuhada Street, a South African based initiative to raise awareness about the lack of freedom of movement in Hebron and how this issue is a reflection of the greater injustice of the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories. For more information about their work you can access their website here.

Pulse media also have a fascinating account of a trip to Hebron. You can access this here.

Back to Israeli Apartheid Week. The international organizing body can be found here, with full details on the events all over the world.

There is also a video trailer promoting the week which you can watch it here.

What then is Israeli Apartheid Week about? I can do no better than return once again to Yaniv Reich, Israeli campaigner for justice, who explains it succinctly thus: “Just to be clear, then, let’s all take a deep breath and remind ourselves of what the anti-apartheid movement is calling for:

  1. End the occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories and tear down the segregation wall.
  2. Full equality for the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  3. The just implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

That’s it, folks. We are talking about nothing more and nothing less than full equality of Jews, Palestinians, and indeed all humans. Many Zionists will—and do—argue that hidden in these seemingly innocuous arguments is a recipe for Jewish catastrophe. There are strong historical reasons for this fear. But no victimization, no matter how brutal, justifies the further victimization of another human. More importantly, the equitable protection of human rights for all parties is the surest way that Israeli Jews can ensure their safety in the uncertain future. And most importantly of all, Palestinians are people, fully formed agents with brains and souls and hopes and fears, and they are equally deserving as anybody else of whatever it is that is good and possible in the world. There is no escaping this essential ethic.”

You can find Yaniv’s own blog - Hybrid States - here. A wonderful site.

Campaigns such as Israeli Apartheid Week do have a positive effect. Here is further evidence of the weakening of Israel’s position in the world, especially amongst Jews. The following is a Petition Against the Right of Return to Israel on Behalf of Australian Jews.

March 2010

We are Jews from Australia, who, like Jewish people throughout the world, have an automatic right to Israeli citizenship under Israel’s “law of return.” While this law may seem intended to enable a Jewish homeland, we submit that it is in fact a form of racist privilege that abets the colonial oppression of the Palestinians.

Today there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees around the world. Israel denies their right to return to their homes and land—a right recognized and undisputed by UN Resolution 194, the Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, we are invited to live on that same land simply because we are Jewish, thereby potentially taking the place of Palestinians who would dearly love to return to their ancestral lands.

We renounce this “right” to “return” offered to us by Israeli law. It is not right that we may “return” to a state that is not ours while Palestinians are excluded and continuously dispossessed.

I conclude with a reminder that the root cause of the Israel/Palestine conflict is the ongoing Israeli occupation. Here is an extract from a fine piece by Noam Sheizaf, another Israeli freelance journalist, on the imperative of focussing on the occupation.

"In other words, talking about peace hides the real nature of the problem, which is the occupation. When we set peace as our goal, it means that the absence of peace – meaning the violence – was the problem. This is true for the Israeli side, but it’s only partly true for the Palestinians. Their main concern is the lack of civil and human rights. For them, the violence they suffer is only the result of the initial problem, which is the occupation. By talking about peace and only peace, we are accepting the Israeli definition of the problem as well as its solution."

Noam’s blog - The Promised Land - can be found here.