Thursday 28 October 2010

My Favourite Operas

Opera is probably my favourite among the performing arts.  I like pretty much all performing arts, but opera has that something extra.  What is it about opera then?  Well in opera you can get just about everything.  Orchestral music, singing, acting, weird and wonderful sets and costumes and  with luck, as an added bonus some ballet.  What more could anyone ask for?
But what makes for great opera?  First up must be the music.  It is after all the composer’s name that is most often associated with an opera.    The appeal of the music is primarily the vocal writing.  Just about anything the human voice can produce can be found in an opera - arias, duets, ensembles, chorus and more no doubt.  Some famous operas survive primarily or even solely due to the magic of the music.  The Pearl Fishers by Bizet springs to find.  An opera best known for its wonderful all male duet - Au fond du temple saint.
However there has to be more than just the music.  Otherwise we could just go to the concert hall.   What makes opera different is that there is to a greater or lesser extent some dramatic content.  Though the drama is vital to a great opera, it is still the quality of the music that makes the difference.  While a poor drama with great music will survive in some form or another, good drama with crap music will not survive.  Or if it does, it will survive as drama alone.  What makes great opera so special is this almost perfect marriage between drama and music.  Opera is, after all is said and done, a form of music theatre.
In working out which are my top ten favourite operas I find that all have their basis in the strength of the underlying story or drama.  While great music is always worth hearing on its own, a great opera needs to be based on good theatre.  
It is thus no surprise that two of my favourites are more or less straight adaptations of successful stage plays by Beaumarchais, while another two are based on plays by Shakespeare.  Three others were intimate collaborations between playwright and composer.  All my favourites make for compelling music theatre with wonderful music.
A little word about some operas not on my list, as they include some which I love dearly.  First up of course, this is my top ten.  For reasons of space, I decided to limit myself to ten operas.  As with any such list the merits of operas just outwith these ten are only marginally less than those in the listed ten.  Secondly I prefer operas that are not too long, however wonderful the music.  This does work against Wagner in particular, though I have included Die Meistersinger, where the comic elements help propel the action on stage a bit more than in some of his other wonderful operas.   Anyway here is the list of my very own favourite operas.

  1. Le Nozze di Figaro                          Wolfgang Mozart
  2. Carmen                                             Georges Bizet
  3. Falstaff                                              Giuseppe Verdi
  4. Otello                                                 Giuseppe Verdi
  5. Die Zauberflöte                                Wolfgang Mozart
  6. Des Contes d’Hoffmann                Jacques Offenbach
  7. Il Barbiere di Siviglia                       Gioachino Rossini
  8. Die Meistersinger                            Richard Wagner
  9. Der Rosenkavalier                           Richard Strauss
  10. Turandot                                           Giacomo Puccini

Monday 25 October 2010

Coalition speaks with forked tongues!

So our masters in the Coalition government have finally revealed the extent of the damage they intend to inflict on the rest of us.  On the whole it is pretty much as expected.  Here are my initial thoughts on some of the key issues about the proposals.  One thing that stands out is that not only is the Coalition nasty, but they also tell lies and lots of them.  Let’s have a look.
  1. The first lie is the claim that the cuts are “fair” and that the poorest in society have been somehow protected.  It only took the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) four hours to burst that claim.  Further research shows beyond doubt that the Coalition were lying and presumably knowingly lying when they made that claim.  It is quite incredible when you think that the biggest cuts are to come in the benefits budget - so clearly the poorest are going to suffer the most.
  2. Linked to the lie about fairness is the claim that “we are all in this together”.  This is a particularly galling lie coming from a government stuffed with multi- millionaires from a highly privileged background.  It would be fascinating to know just exactly what the likes of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and co. are going to have to give up to help reduce the deficit.  At the same time we hear that the government’s friends in the City are to share bonuses of £7 billion this year.  So just who is in this together?  Certainly not the government or the very rich or the City financiers.
  3. Talking of banks and their willingness to share the pain of the mess.  A mess that they - the financial companies created.  The government announces that they will introduce a levy on the banks, but it is only expected to raise £2.5 billion a year.  Why only £2.5 billion?   Well, we can’t raise more or otherwise the banks would leave the UK and set up shop elsewhere.  So much for solidarity.   And in fact due to the progressive reduction in corporation tax, most banks will end up paying nothing at all in additional tax.  Now, where is the outrage against these threats by the banks to up and leave.  If Trade Unions make any kind of threat to take industrial action the government and their friends in the media immediately accuse workers of holding the country to ransom.  Is this not exactly what the City is doing?  Their threats, if true are a form of treachery.  So why are these banks and financial companies not named and shamed?  And just where would they go?  This is all another example of lies from the government.  They won’t increase tax on the banks because they don’t want to - too many friends in the business as it were.
  4. Of course there is no need to worry about any of this.  The Free Market is going to step in solve all our woes.  If you believe this then you do believe in fairies.  Most economist look for a bit in the way of evidence.  As Danny Blanchflower, former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee wrote for the Guardian,  “The Chancellor’s economic strategy is to cross his fingers and hope that the private sector will create 2.5m jobs within five years, despite the fact that between 2000 and 2008 only 1.6m private sector jobs were created. Recovery is going to be a long slog.  Contrary to claims made by various members of the government, there is no believable evidence that fiscal tightening on the scale that is being proposed has ever worked. When Canada implemented its fiscal tightening its neighbour was experiencing the Clinton boom, plus it was able to cut interest rates.”  You can read the whole article here.  And remember that letter signed by 35 so-called leading businessmen urging on the cuts and assuring everyone that the private sector will be able to make up the job losses in the public sector?  Well it turns out that most of the signatories were also lying.  Most of the companies involved have been shedding jobs over the past two years and some have privately informed their boards that they are most unlikely to take in new staff any time soon.  All because of the austerity measures imposed by the government.  Seems it is not only the government we can’t trust.  We can’t trust business leaders either.  So nothing new there!  Osama Saeed has some details here.
  5. Finally we come to the grandaddy of all the lies.  The one about we had to do it guv.  Things were in such a mess and the country was on the brink of bankruptcy that we had to take drastic action or the whole world would have punished us.  Or at least the markets would have punished us with higher interest rates on our debt.  This is all a pack of lies and well documented lies at that.  The key points to bear in mind are the following.  1. the current level of government debt is not that high historically.  Between 1920 and 1960 government never fell below 100% of GDP.  Yet we all managed to survive.  2.  current government debt is not high in comparison with other countries.  In fact the UK has the lowest level of government debt as a proportion of GDP among the G7 countries.  3.  the government debt is overwhelmingly owed to UK institutions and is also long term and not due to be repaid for another 10 - 12 years.  This means there is no threat to our credit rating by the foreign money markets.  You can read more about these particular lies herehere and here.
What is most depressing about all this is not simply that our Coalition government is both nasty and lying, but that the level of coverage in our mainstream media is so pathetic.  The odd critic is allowed to raise his or her objections but the overwhelming attitude of both the print and TV media is to accept at face value the government’s line that there is no alternative to cuts - it’s just a matter of how much and how fast.  This of course makes Labour’s opposition so difficult.  They also are thirled to the basic (false) premise.  We are trapped in a situation in which virtually all our MPs, with one or two honourable exceptions, all agree with the conventional wisdom.  So much for our much lauded democracy.  
For the future we need to not just oppose the cuts, but to begin to develop an alternative economic vision.  Can Labour provide us with this?  Now, now, you don’t believe in magic fairies do you?  As a starter for ten here is a good introduction to just how stupid the conventional wisdom is.

Thursday 21 October 2010

V&A at Dundee

Looks like some good news for Dundee amidst all the gloom.  Plans are afoot to build a new museum in the city.  It will be a Scottish offshoot of the famous V&A in London, the world’s leading museum of art and design.  From the project’s brochure - “The V&A at Dundee will be an international centre for design housed in a stunning building at the heart of Dundee’s waterfront.”
This is part of a long term plan to redevelop the city’s riverside waterfront.  The space earmarked for the building includes utilizing part of the river itself.  The main structure will be on the river!  As this is a major development the promoters hope that the building itself will be an example of exceptional design.  Below is a plan of the waterfront, showing where the new building will be located.
Apparently more than 120 architects from around the world entered the fray and this has now been whittled down to a final list of six shortlisted designs.  These are now on display in Dundee.  The exhibition V&A at Dundee - Making it Happen, is in the Abertay University Library.  There you can see models, photographic and other other images of each design, along with descriptions of each vision.  It is well worth visiting, especially as members of the public are invited to list in order of preference their favourite design.  So if you live anywhere near Dundee make an effort to see the exhibition and vote for your choice.  For those who cannot get to Dundee, here are a couple of websites to whet your appetite.  If you just want to see a simple image of each design then the BBC offer that here.  For a fuller account of the whole project you can go here.
I have managed a quick tour of the exhibition on a couple of occasions, both accompanied by grandchildren.  I hope to get back at least one more time to get a more leisurely view of the designs.  At the moment my preference is marginally for the design by Oslo based Snøheta.  I particularly like this design for two main reasons.  The first is that the building will sit directly into the water, floating on the surface of the river.  Secondly the building will be very low level, and this should make it more human in scale.  People are likely to feel very relaxed and at home in and around this building.
I also like the design from New York based REX.  This is an altogether different vision.  All see through glass the “Bluebell” rises up in what appears to be six interlocking structures that widen as they rise.  I like the outward simplicity of the structure and the use of glass.  Looks like a very innovative design, which may attract a lot of attention, both for and against!
The other design which I quite like is by Steven Holl, a team based in New York and Beijing.  This looks by far the tallest of the designs and rises as a series of very narrow structures above the river.  The model looks very impressive and the building would certainly stand out, literally.  This is my main concern about the design.  I fear it would be too dominating for a relatively small city like Dundee.  It may also appear very obtrusive thrusting up on its own in the river.  Much as I like this design, I don’t think it suits the site.
None of the other three designs particularly impressed me.  Two were much too avant guard for my simple tastes, while the other was just too like a workbox to inspire anyone.  Best of all to see for yourself - you have until 4th November to visit the exhibition.  The winning design is to be announced later in the month.

Monday 18 October 2010

Non violent resistance in Palestine

The times they are a changing.  Alas, all too slowly, but things are changing in Israel/Palestine.  In the face of incessant and growing Israeli violence, the resistance movement in Palestine is growing day by day.  And this resistance is overwhelmingly non-violent.
Whether it is in occupied East Jerusalem or the occupied West Bank, Palestinians on a weekly or daily basis meet to protest against the continuing illegal Israeli occupation.  Places such as Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, or Bil’in, Nil’in, Budrus or Hebron in the West Bank see peaceful protests against Israeli theft of Palestinian land.  In most of these protest, it is not just Palestinians who peacefully protest, but a growing number of Israelis have begun to join them.  International activists are also there to provide witness to the violence with which Israeli forces meet these peaceful protests.  For up to date information on examples of non-violent resistance, see here, here, here and here.
What is unfortunately all too common about these and other peaceful protests is that they are uniformly ignored by the mainstream media in the West.  Our supposedly independent and investigative media is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to Palestine.  There it is almost always the Israeli narrative that gets published.  And the Israelis and their friends in the media are only too keen to highlight the relatively few instances of violent Palestinian resistance.  Thus most people are unaware that more than 10 times as many Palestinians have been killed as Israelis in this decade alone.  And in almost all cases Palestinian violence has come in response to Israeli aggression.
The Israelis are also very fond of imprisoning Palestinians.  At any one time over 10,000 Palestinians, including women and teenagers are kept in prison.  The vast majority are in what is known as administrative detention.  In other words they have usually not been charged with anything or found guilty of anything.  The Israelis just don’t like any kind of opposition to their ongoing illegal occupation.  Many of those in prison are leaders or participants in the these non violent campaigns.  For a fuller glimpse into this non violent protest try to see the recently released film Budrus.  This is a documentary about the unarmed struggle of a Palestinian village, Budrus, against the confiscation of its land for the construction of Israel’s security barrier.  Here are some comments on the importance of the film by Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf, who  blogs at Promised Land.  “I watched Budrus twice, a few months ago in Israel and last night in NY, in a special screening attended by Queen Noor of Jordan. I found the film as inspiring and compelling as it was on the first time I saw it.
In 2003-2004, Budrus played a key role in what became, in my opinion, the most important grassroots effort of the decade: the emergence of a widespread unarmed campaign against the occupation, involving Palestinians, Israelis and international activists.
What started as local protests in a handful of Palestinian villages, became a new strategy for challenging the entire mechanism and political rational of the Israeli control over the West Bank. One might say that the unarmed struggle is bringing this conflict back to its basics: not a diplomatic issue, but rather a human rights one; not a question of peace and war, but one relating to the denial of personal or political rights for decades from million of people.”
The film promises to offer us all an insight into the daily struggles of Palestinians against Israeli aggression.  Letters from Palestine is a newly published book which gives us another perspective into the daily lives of Palestinian people.  In the book, Palestinians write about what it is like to live in the occupied territories of the West Bank or Gaza, or to grow up as a Palestinian in the USA.
It is of course Palestinians, with the brave support of some courageous Israelis who bear the brunt of opposing Israeli aggression.  We who live outside of Palestine can not just recognize their bravery, but we too can actively participate in the non violent resistance to Israeli aggression.  We can do this through supporting the Global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement - BDS.  This campaign asks people to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era, until Israel meets its obligations to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.  For most people this can simply involve not buying Israeli goods, whether this is fruit or vegetables or cosmetic products.  You can also become more active by joining your local group.  Here in Dundee our group is called Tayside for Justice in Palestine.  It is important to note that our campaign is for justice for all who live in Palestine - Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists.  
It is hard to see why Israel can be so opposed to abiding by international law and UN resolutions.  It is even harder to see why the West in general and the UK and the USA in particular continue to support Israeli intransigence and aggression.  Join the BDS movement and oppose Israeli aggression!

Thursday 14 October 2010

Norwegian Wood

The title of this post refers to the novel by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.  This is the first Japanese novel I have read.  I came across a website which is devoted to Japanese Literature, and was quite intrigued by this, unknown to me, cultural world.  As the site is in the form of a challenge it helpfully offers a list of possible books to choose from.  So I decided to venture forth and read at least one of the novels on the list.  As I try to avoid buying books whenever possible, I limited my choice to what was available in the local library.   As you can imagine this reduced the options considerably.  This is how I ended up with Norwegian Wood.
Haruki Murakami is, as it turns out, a very famous Japanese author who has been acclaimed by many as among the world’s greatest living novelists.  Quite some praise.  Norwegian Wood was first published in1987 and was the novel which brought him fame and literary stardom.  It is easy to see why, as the novel is both relatively straightforward and easy to read while dealing with some very intense and troubling events and emotions.
The book is written as an attempt by the narrator, Toru Watanabe, now aged 37, to come to terms with and understand events that happened 18 - 20 years earlier.   The key trigger was the suicide of Watanabe’s best friend, Kizuki, when he was just 17 years old.  The novel recounts how Watanabe tries to deal with this traumatic event.  Initially he tries to forget all about it and leaves his home town to study at a university in Tokyo.  While there he lives in a student hostel and much of the background to the novel is about the banalities of student life in Japan in the late 1960s.  Though this was a tine of turmoil for some, Watanabe and his circle remain outside the great political struggles.  You get a real sense of the regimentation and hierarchical nature of Japanese society during that period.
However the novel is mainly about Watanabe’s personal development.  He meets up with the enigmatic and fragile Naoko who was Kizuki’s girlfriend, and who had also fled to Tokyo.  The pair develop a rather strange relationship and Watanabe falls in love with Naoko.  Unfortunately, Naoko suffers a breakdown and suddenly leaves both Watanabe and Tokyo.  Into his life, pops the more lively Midori, another student.  Most of the novel is about the relationships revolving around this triangle.

Though fairly straightforward to read, the novel does weigh in with interesting reflections on life and literature - Watanabe is a student of western literature.  One of the these reflections, about the tragedies of Euripedes, in many ways is an excellent summary of the novel itself.  “Lots of different people appear, and they all have their own situations and reasons and excuses, and each one is pursuing his or her own idea of justice or happiness.  As a result, nobody can do anything.”
While this is a rough guide to the novel, a lot does happen, as each of the main characters tries to work their own painful way through the minefield of becoming an adult.  Watanabe himself in one of his reflections on Kizuki best describes what the novel is really about.  “ Hey, there, Kizuki, I thought.  Unlike you, I’ve chosen to live - and to live the best I know how.  Sure, it was hard for you.  What the hell, it’s hard for me.  Really hard.  And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind.  But that’s something I will never do.  I will never, ever, turn my back on her.  First of all, because I love her, and because I’m stronger than she is.  And I’m just going to keep on getting stronger.  I’m going to mature.  I’m going to be an adult.  Because that’s what I have to do.  I always used to think I’d like to stay 17 or 18 if I could.  But not any more.  I’m not a teenager any more.  I’ve got a sense of responsibility now.  I’m not the same person I was when we used to hang out together.  I’m 20 now.  And I have to pay the price to go on living.”
The title of the novel comes from the Beatles’ song Norwegian Wood, which was the favourite song of Naoko, Watanabe’s first love.  The novel has now been made into a film, directed by Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran.  It is due to be released in Japan in December.  Interesting to see if gets general release over here.

Monday 11 October 2010

First Signs of Panic from the Coalition?

Much to the surprise of most people, the Tory Party Conference turned into a bit of a shambles.  The main reason for this was of course the announcement that from 2013 child benefit will be abolished for households where one or more people pay income tax at the 40% rate.  In other words where one partner earns more than £44, 000.   Unfortunately someone had not done their homework properly.  For it immediately emerged that this measure will in fact penalize single earner households.   A family with one earner who earns over £44,000 will lose all their child benefits, while a similar family with two earners with a combined income of over £80,000 will continue to receive child benefit in full.   And we are talking about serious money here.  £1,055 per year for one child, £1,752 for two children and £2, 449 for three children.  So the Tories were subjected to a barrage of attacks from their erstwhile allies in the media for daring to penalize the hard working middle class.  And then came the first signs of panic with the Prime Minister suddenly rolling out proposals to introduce some kind of tax break for married couples.  No doubt very appealing to the Daily Mail and the like.  But will this be welcomed by the majority in the country?  What’s so special about a marriage certificate?  And of course any tax break will benefit childless couples as well, so long as they are married.  Not a well thought out policy.
How did this all come about?  As far as I can see this proposal is all part of the softening up process by which the Coalition hopes to avoid raising income tax and at the same time start to dismantle key elements in the Welfare State.    Let’s start with income tax.  The Tories will do almost anything to avoid raising income tax.  They will increase VAT, but not income tax.  Yet if the country is in such an economic and financial mess as they claim, then why not raise income tax, especially for higher earners.  After all why shouldn’t the better off, these who benefitted most from the excesses of the last two decades, pay a higher share of reducing the deficit.   So instead of abolishing child benefits for higher rate taxpayers why not raise income tax for this group by for example 2p?  The additional income tax to be paid would still leave most families with children better off.  A two child family would need to earn over £90,000 before they were worse off.  However raising income tax for all higher rate taxpayers has the twin advantages of a) making childless earners contribute to reducing the deficit and b) preserving the principle of universal benefits.  
However I suspect that is precisely why the Tories in particular rejected this approach.  They don’t want to be seen to raise income tax on this higher earning group and most important of all they do want to do away with the universal principle when it comes to benefits.  Thus by taking something away from higher earners the Coalition hoped to demonstrate that they were being fair and that everyone, including the better off, will have to bear their share of the burden.  What they hoped the message would be was something along the lines of look we have shown we can make cuts in benefits for the rich, so now we can really clobber the poor.
Which they have already started to do.  For example alongside the announcement of the cuts to child benefit for the better off, came the announcement that welfare benefits for the unemployed are to be capped at £500 per week.  And unlike the cuts in child benefit, which won’t happen until 2013, the cuts to the poor will take place immediately.  And now we have advance warning of the Coalition’s plans to attack the wages of the poor.  The New Labour renegade, Hutton, is recommending that public sector workers will have to work longer, pay more in contributions and get less back in pension.  While there may be a few headlines about the very small number of high earners in the public sector, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of public service workers are low paid, with an average pension of around £7,000 per year.  And these are the people who the Coalition wants to bear the brunt of paying to sort out the mess that the rich created.   For, never forget who created the current financial and economic crisis.  When the Coalition rant on about the size and magnitude of the national debt, they always conveniently forget to mention that most of this debt comes from bailing out the Banks.  Yet this debt, which had nothing to do with public services or working people, is the excuse the Coalition rolls out to justify their attacks on public services.
In all this we can see the true, nasty agenda of the Coalition.  It is straight back to the early Victorian notion of the deserving and the undeserving poor.  The classic divide and rule strategy of the rich since time immemorial.  Get the low paid to blame each other and leave the rich free to get richer and richer.  See the latest projections for bonus payments in the City of London.
Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out quite as planned.  The outrage shown by many of the Tories’ usual supporters, and in particular the claim that this attack on the middle classes is unfair, will make it even more difficult for the Coalition to force through the real cuts that are to come.   Just watch out for lots of references to Fairness when the next round of cuts to jobs and services come.  How long before the public begins to fight back?  Will Labour under Ed Milliband lead the fight back?  One can only dream.

Friday 8 October 2010

Photo of the Month - September

As with August, we spent most of September in Switzerland, with brief outings to Germany.  So most of the selections for this month again come from the continent.  One of our first visits was to the Park im Gruene in Ruschlikon.  This is a favourite place for Alessio.  This time there were some workmen repairing the thatch on an old, traditional style building which serves as a museum.  I have never seen this kind of work before, so it was very interesting to watch them at work.  Here is one of the workmen on a temporary ledge.
This was also Alessio’s birthday and we had a party for him that evening, with the usual trimmings, cake and so on.  But I think Alessio was happiest kicking a football around.  As you can see from the next photo he has excellent timing and co-ordination.

The following photo of a heron was taken on one of our walks around the Zürichsee.  This was on the stretch close to the lake just outside Horgen.
In Switzerland it is traditional to put up displays of autumn fruits, especially gourds.  Usually they are placed somewhere outside the front door for public viewing.  This time Kathleen decided to use some gourds to make a table display for inside the house.  Emma has subsequently added to this creation.
The next photo was a bit of an experiment.  I don't know if it has anything to do with the season of the year, but near Alessio's Spielgruppe I noticed quite a lot of spiders' webs on hedges and bushes.  So I took a few photos of them and this one I particularly like as you can see both the web and the poor creature caught inside.
The above photos were all taken in or around Kilchberg.  The others are from further afield.  I start with this snap of the Berner Oberland taken from the summit of Mt Pilatus.  It was quite cloudy high up and the peaks kept disappearing and re-appearing, so I was pleased to get this one.
Next up is this photo from a stall at the market at Bürkiplatz in Zürich.  This was a flower, vegetable and food market, with so many stalls to tempt the senses.  This one sold dried flowers, in particular lavender.  I am into lavender at the moment, so I just love this photo.
Also from Zürich is this adorable polar bear.  He can be found in the window of a fashion shop on the Rennweg in the old town.  The shop makes a feature of bears for their window display.  Each time we pass by there are some cuddly bears on display.
One of day trips was to Konstanz in southern Germany.  And there we had lunch in a lovely Italian restaurant called Pinochio.  The inside walls were covered with paintings, sculptures and other images of the little boy.  This one impressed me most.
The exceedingly large boot below comes from Rapperswil, a fine town at the far end of the Zürichsee.  It stands outside a rather posh looking hotel.
Another autumnal custom in Switzerland is to hang wreaths on the outside of buildings.  Usually they go on the door, but this  one was on the wall of a little shop selling home made food products.  I liked the simplicity of the arrangement and the use of the wheel.   We found the shop in the village Unterengstringen on our way back from visiting the Fahr monastery, just outside Zürich.
The last photo from Switzerland is this snap of the legendary Trabant car.  A relic from the old East Germany, it is now a bit of a rarity.  Though it may now have acquired cult status.  We came across this one in Schaffhausen, which of course is right on the border with Germany.
Finally a couple of photos from back in Scotland.  The first is this view over the Lade Braes part of St. Andrews looking across the golf links and further on to Tentsmuir forest with the Angus hills in the distance.  The prominent building on the left is the Old Course hotel.  This photo was taken from the hillside to the south of the town.
I end with this found object on the beach at Broughty Ferry.  I was just out for a walk in the autumn sunshine and took some photos of the objects on the beach.  Mostly shells, but I did like this little group.  The remains of a seaweed which has attached itself to a large pebble.

Monday 4 October 2010

Israeli Racism

Racism in Israel has a long and ignoble history.  This racism in fact long predates the bloody founding of the state and goes back to the origins of the state - the Zionist Project.  For Zionism is in essence a racist ideology.  Developed in central Europe in the latter decades of the 19th century, Zionism is based on two dubious and disturbing premises.  The first is that    assimilation or integration into European society is bad for Jews.  As Yosef Haim Brenner put it, these Jews were, “mentally, morally and spiritually disfigured.”  Alongside this view was the claim that discrimination against Jews was so rife and deep in European societies that anti-semitism would never disappear.  Both ideas came together to create the Zionist movement which claimed that the only way that Jews could be saved and find security was to “return” to Palestine and set up their own Jewish state.
Now all this seems to me to be doubly racist.  It asserts that contact with non Jews desecrates and defiles Jews and that all European and by extension all countries as irredeemably anti-semitic.  This would seem to fly in the face of reality.  There have been and continue to be thriving Jewish communities in many parts of the world, including Europe.  While anti-semitism does survive it is hardly the dominant force in the world.  In the UK, the Labour party has just elected a Jew as its leader, while the strength of the Jewish Lobby in the USA hardly indicates an enfeebled or weak community.
This explicit racism at the heart of the Zionist movement was to become the key feature of modern Israel.  The very creation of the state in 1948/49 involved the brutal expulsion of the Palestinian Arab population from the areas that were to become Israel.  For Israel to become a “Jewish” state, all non Jews had to be expelled.  As testimonies from Israeli leaders from this period make clear this was no accident or by product.  The expulsion of Arabs was the prime purpose of the war.  "Among ourselves, it must be clear that there is no place in the country for both peoples together.    With the Arabs we shall not achieve our aim of being an independent people in this country. The only solution is Eretz-Israel, at least the west part of Eretz-Israel, without Arabs . . . And there is no other way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries. Transfer all of them, not one village or tribe should remain . . ."  –Joseph Weitz, entry in his diary for 1940, quoted in his article: ‘A solution to the Refugee Problem: An Israeli State with a small Arab Minority’, published in Davar, 29 September, 1967.   
In this of course Israel failed - many Palestinians couldn’t or wouldn’t flee.  With the result that around 22% of the population of Israel has remained Palestinian.  In its treatment of this minority, we have further examples of Israeli racism.  Though on paper the Palestinian Arabs have full rights as Israeli citizens, in practice they remain a persecuted and discriminated against community.  Many, perhaps most Israelis would really prefer these Palestinians to leave or be expelled.  Or as in the proposals of Avigdor Liebermann, Israel’s foreign minister, the parts of Israel with large Palestinian populations should be transferred to a new Palestinian state in return for Israel keeping most of the West Bank.  This kind of proposal coming from a major politician clearly shows the depth of racism within Israeli society.  For this kind of extreme ethnic cleansing can only come about on the basis of a deep hatred for the Palestinians.

An example of the brutality that this racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel engenders was to be seen recently in Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) when a prominent Palestinian MP was violently threatened on the floor of the chamber.  A Parliamentary Mob on a Rampage is how Israeli campaigner Uri Avnery described the incident.  Here is part of what he wrote, “On the Knesset speaker’s rostrum stood MK Haneen Zoabi of the Arab nationalist Balad faction and tried to explain why she had joined the Gaza aid flotilla that had been attacked by the Israeli navy. MK Anastasia Michaeli, a member of the Lieberman party, jumped from her seat and rushed to the rostrum, letting out blood-curdling shrieks, waving her arms, in order to remove Haneen Zoabi by force. Other members rose from their seats to help Michaeli. Near the speaker, a threatening crowd of Knesset members gathered. Only with great difficulty did the ushers succeed in saving Zoabi from bodily harm. One of the male members shouted at her, in a typical mixture of racism and sexism: “Go to Gaza and see what they will do to a 41-year-old unmarried woman!”  One could not imagine a greater contrast than that between the two MKs. While Haneen Zoabi belongs to a family whose roots in the Nazareth area go back centuries, perhaps to the time of Jesus, Anastasia Michaeli was born in (then) Leningrad. She was elected “Miss St. Petersburg” and then became a fashion model, married an Israeli, converted to Judaism, immigrated to Israel at age 24 but sticks to her very Russian first name. She has given birth to eight children. She may be a candidate for the Israeli Sarah Palin, who, after all, was also once a beauty queen.  As far as I could make out, not a single Jewish member raised a finger to defend Zoabi during the tumult. Nothing but some half-hearted protest from the speaker, Reuven Rivlin, and a Meretz member, Chaim Oron.  In all the 61 years of its existence, the Knesset had not seen such a sight. Within a minute the sovereign assembly turned into a parliamentary lynch mob.”  You can read the whole piece here.
Though Haneen Zoabi emerged unhurt, at least physically unhurt, the same cannot be said of thousands and thousands of Palestinians who continue to suffer at the hands of Israeli brutality in the form of killings, house demolitions, beatings, imprisonment without trial, expropriation of land etc.  All this violence against Palestinians is done in the name of securing Israel for Jews.  In other words racism.  Jews are so special, their sufferings have been so unique that they are entitled to do almost anything in order to protect their state as a “Jewish only” state.   This of course is the official Israeli state policy, supported by Zionists.  However not all Jews support this position and not even all Israeli Jews.  Many Israeli Jews have taken and continue to take courageous action against this racism and speak out in support of their Palestinian neighbours.  One such is David Shulman who is a professor at the Hebrew University.  Here you can read his report on how settlers and local police in Sheikh Jarrah managed to destroy the Succah he and others had built to celebrate the Jewish festival of Succot.
Israel as this brief outline has shown is a deeply racist state.  Which is not to say that all Israelis are racists.  Just that the basis for the state of Israel is racist.  Evidence for this racism is clearly available on a daily basis both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories.  Much of this evidence has been brought out by Israeli Jews, so there is little reason to doubt its accuracy.  Which makes it all the more disturbing that so much of the Western world, in particular the UK and the USA still supports Israel in its ongoing land grab and violence against Palestinians.

Friday 1 October 2010


It is now October and it is almost a year since I started this little series of reflections on each month.  I began with November, so this will be the last of these particular posts.  With the arrival of October we are well and truly into autumn.  The patio and window boxes are beginning to look a bit threadbare and there are colourful leaves everywhere.  In a few weeks time the whole of the front garden will be covered with them.   However October is usually still a pleasant month of the year, weather wise.  The sun shines most of the time and though getting colder and colder there is often some warmth in the air.  And with all the berries in full blaze, October is a very colourful month.  Alas, come the end of the month, the clocks change and we are immediately plunged into winter darkness.  So let's enjoy the brief respite that October brings.
Festival wise, October does not seem to be a particularly inspiring month.  At least in Scotland we have the Royal National Mod to look forward to.  This is the annual showcase of all that is best in our Gaelic heritage.  A time to celebrate gaelic language, music and culture.  Though very few Scots now speak the language it is important to remember that Scotland as a country was created by our gaelic speaking ancestors and it is good to see that tradition still alive and honoured.  This year the Mod will be held from 8th - 16th October in Wick in Caithness.  For more information about this year’s Mod go here.
If you fancy something completely different then head for Oundle, Northamptonshire in England.  There on 10th October you will find the World Conker Championship.  This started in 1965 and now attracts competitors from all over the world.  Conkers was one of the great children’s games from my childhood.  Every year the school playgrounds and streets would be full of children trying to prove their ability to smash their opponents conker.  I wonder if children nowadays still play conkers?  If you are unfamiliar with conkers then here is the place to go.  The game is played with the fruit of the horse chestnut tree, known as conkers.  They have also been used to prevent piles and rheumatism and can be used in wardrobes to keep away moths.  Below are some conkers ready for action.
October is also the month when Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving.  This has always been held earlier in Canada due to the harsher weather and the earlier onset of winter.  So this year our Canadian friends will be celebrating on Monday 11th.  Here’s hoping they all have a good time.
October is a good month for sports fans.  The football and rugby season is in full swing and this year there are two world famous international events.  First up, from 1st - 3rd of the month is the Ryder Cup, when the golfing gladiators from the USA and Europe battle it out for the biennial trophy.  This year it is held at the Celtic Manor course in South Wales and Europe will be desperate to win the trophy back.  Good luck to Monty and his team.
The other big event is the Commonwealth Games which runs from 3rd - 14th October.  This year it goes, for the first time, to India.  Delhi has the honour of hosting the games and let’s hope that all goes well.  There has been some bad press about some of the facilities.  But I suspect it will turn out to be a great event.  I hope so, for in four years time the games come to Glasgow.
For my branch of the Rutherford family, I could only discover one event of significance.  In 1865, on 9th October, Janet Mair died.  She was the wife of James Rutherford and was therefore my great, great, great grandmother.  
Opal is the birthstone for October.  The traditional properties of the opal are happiness, faithfulness, loyalty and confidence.  Opal comes in many colours, though blue is perhaps the most popular.  Here is an example of a blue green opal.
The birth flower for October is the Calendula.  This has been a popular flower for centuries.  The early Christians called it Mary’s Gold, hence its common name of marigold.  A member of the daisy family, calendula is a popular ingredient in herbal creams as it has anti-inflammatory properties.  Calendula is associated with sorrow, despair, grief and misery.  No doubt why they have become the traditional graveyard flower.  However in India they are worn as garlands and as the flowers follow the sun in bloom, they also represent life and joy.  A much happier image to end with.