Read my blog at Huffington Post

I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Tsofen and the Arab citizens of Israel

I went last night to an interesting event organised by the UK Task Force on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel, about the work of Tsofen, an organisation that aims to accelerate and increase the level of Arab participation in the Israeli hi-tech industry. It was good to hear about Tsofen's valuable work and I am a great supporter of the Task Force more generally. When I first heard about it, I wondered why we Brits were setting up a task force to advise another country's government on its approach to minority rights? The answer to that question is that, if the Anglo-Jewish community is going to raise and spend charitable funds on projects in Israel, then it is deeply important to consider how those funds are spent, hence the great value added by the Task Force, following the success of a similar North American initiative

Of course, Israel is a Parliamentary democracy in which every citizen has the vote, freedom of expression and equality before the law. Arab citizens of Israel serve in Parliament, in the judiciary and in the diplomatic service; Majalli Wahabi, a Druze citizen of Israel, served a few years ago as Israel's Acting President, in yet further proof that those who lie about "Israeli apartheid" know even less about apartheid than they do about Israel. However, the situation faced by Arab citizens of Israel remains far from perfect, hence the need for the sort of initiatives that the UK Task Force is promoting.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Churchill, ju-jitsu, armed mobs and Johann Hari

Reading Richard Toye's enjoyable Lloyd George & Churchill: Rivals for Greatness, I was startled to read that, when successfully seeking election in 1906 as the Liberal candidate for Manchester North-West, "Churchill was seen as the star of the campaign: he not only gave ju-jitsu demonstrations but...also wore interesting hats". Hats I can take or leave, but ju-jitsu sounds like a splendid idea. How have we managed without it? Is there time for the Lib Dem Candidates' Office to arrange some training sessions for this year's party conference? What I would love to know is, on whom did Churchill demonstrate ju-jitsu? Did Churchill, in the manner of William Hague and his judo sessions with Sebastian Coe, have a trusted retainer with whom he wrestled on public platforms? Not that Hague and Coe ever did their judo-ing on public platforms, but you know what I mean. Upon arriving home from a long day's campaigning, was Churchill sometimes set upon by said retainer in the manner of Inspector Clouseau being attacked by Cato? "Not now, Inches! Not now!"

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Nonsense and conspiracy theories

Dangerous things, conspiracy theories. I wanted to read David Aaronovitch's book on the subject, but when I went to the bookshop, agents of the great conspiracy (presumably paid by the Illuminati) had removed all copies after following me there. There is a well-known former broadcaster who believes that the Queen is a disguised lizard from outer space, which is why Her Majesty is called Elizabeth, that being a cunning mask for her real name: "E-lizard-beth". It is not inconceivable that anyone who believes that to be true is - I really don't need to finish that sentence, do I?

Monday, 27 June 2011

Gilad Shalit, Palestinian prisoners and the Liberal 1984 Group

Good for Amnesty International for petitioning Hamas to improve the appalling conditions in which Gilad Shalit is held. I have signed and I urge others to do so; also, if you're an MP, you may also wish to sign EDM 1983. I suppose that Amnesty ought really to be calling for Gilad Shalit's actual release, but campaigning to improve the dire conditions in which he is held is a lot better than nothing. It is impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Gilad Shalit to Israeli public opinion, and if you care about the peace process, then you need to care about Israeli public opinion. It's also simply a humanitarian outrage. Nothing can justify this kidnapping and the manner of Gilad Shalit's detention. 

Israel's holding of Palestinian prisoners, in modern prisons with proper checks and balances, is not morally equivalent to Hamas' 'disappearing' of Gilad Shalit. This is especially the case given that such prisoners receive visits from the Red Cross, who have been flagrantly denied access to Gilad Shalit. Having said that, all prisoners, in all countries, are entitled to be treated in an appropriate manner. Israel, like Britain, is a liberal democracy, and liberal democracies have high standards when it comes to how prisoners are treated. In my purely personal opinion, Prime Minister Netanyahu is wrong to have announced a special revocation of privileges for a particular category of Palestinian prisoners. I am not alone in having strong doubts about this latest prime ministerial policy initiative; just as Israel's critics are wrong to link the question of Gilad Shalit's release to the question of how Israel treats its prisoners, so it is wrong to make the same linkage in reverse.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

He's right, but I wish he was wrong

Professor Benny Morris is a controversial and fascinating figure. Once one of Israel's New Historians, he subsequently revised his own revisionist approach to the events of 1948. In his 2009 book One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, Professor Morris wrote about Muslims and Arabs in terms that offend me as much as similar writing about Jews would offend me. That didn't stop me reading and enjoying the book after getting a signed copy from Professor Morris at an event in London, but I remain uncomfortable with his turn of phrase on occasions.

In his interview with Friday's Jewish Chronicle (JC), Professor Morris referred to having been "mobbed by Muslim hooligans" while en route to deliver a recent lecture at the LSE. What would be the reaction if a Palestinian academic had reported being "mobbed by Jewish hooligans" while en route to deliver a recent lecture at the LSE? Surely some people, myself included, would have been deeply uncomfortable with such language?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Posters could land Boris in cold water

If Boris Johnson supports the London On Tap campaign, then why are Tube stations covered in posters advising people to carry a bottle of water in the hot weather? I definitely saw one such poster (bearing Boris' "MAYOR OF LONDON" logo) today, including an image of a disposable plastic water bottle. The carbon footprint of some brands of bottled water can be up to 300 times more than that of tap water, and the Mayor himself has said: "Bottled water is environmentally damaging because it causes unnecessary waste and pollution. Tap water is a cheaper option which will also help protect and preserve the environment." Why, therefore, is he spending taxpayers' money on posters that encourage people to drink bottled water? What happened to the water fountains that he promised us?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Michael Grade and Jew-ish food

I was reflecting to a friend earlier today that being a political activist is in one sense like being an actor. Not that I have ever actually been an actor, although my Zebedee (in a production of Dougal and the Blue Cat) was once noted on the Edinburgh Fringe, but being a political activist is like being an actor in that one can easily become typecast. Although I have, on the whole, managed to shrug off Zebedee, I have become very agreeably typecast politically because, although I lead what is pretty much an entirely non-religious lifestyle, I often seem to get involved in issues that involve religion. The deeper one digs into such issues, the more engrossing they become, so this has been one of politics' more interesting and enjoyable surprises.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Durbar Court

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt gave an enjoyable talk this evening, covering the whole area of his portfolio, before taking questions. Held under the Chatham House rule, so I shall confine myself to saying that Durbar Court at the Foreign Office is one beautiful room; should you ever get to go there as part of something like Open House London, then I heartily recommend that you do. The event was organised by a group called Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, which will cause some sniggering among those of you who know that I am now forty...Anyway, great stuff.

Jenny, I have my own dream

Baroness (Jenny) Tonge has a dream, which she shared at a public meeting the other night. Labour's Sir Gerald Kaufman says that he dreams the same dream, and his fellow Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn was at the same meeting, so Baroness Tonge's dream appears to be as much a Labour dream as it is a Lib Dem one. I too have a dream. Let me share it with you: it is that Baroness Tonge would apply to Israel/Palestine the same intelligence and dispassionate analysis that she routinely applies to other issues, rather than indulging in the emotive language of one-sided condemnation. Were Baroness Tonge to lend her voice to some of the sensible, mainstream efforts that are being made to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, she could make an enormous contribution; instead she chooses to hang out with Kaufman and Corbyn in a Far Left cul-de-sac that even Caroline Lucas is now too mainstream to unambiguously occupy.

Baroness Tonge is a backbench peer and does not speak for my party on these matters (the Party Leader and other frontbenchers do that), any more than Kaufman-Corbyn speak on these things for Labour, but one is bound to ask her: if even George Galloway thinks that you might have gone a bit far, is it not maybe time to change the record? Sure, we're all angry about preventable suffering, including in Israel/Palestine, but it's only when we move beyond anger (and the language of anger) that we shall truly bring about the compromises that will create peace. 

Justice for Bili'in as Israel moves fence - but is Gilad Shalit alive?

Some people may be sceptical as to claims that Palestinians can appeal to Israel's courts over the location of the West Bank security barrier. Well, Israel has now begun dismantling a section of the barrier at Bili'in following a ruling by the country's High Court, proving that this does sometimes happen. Whether you like it or not, the security barrier has massively reduced the number of suicide bombings, etc. Unless one thinks that suicide bombings are a good thing, then one has to be pleased about there being fewer such bombings, whatever arguments there are about the route of the barrier.

Ian Davidson's neo-apology is not enough

This row about the Labour MP Ian Davidson calling the SNP neo-fascist...They're clearly not neo-fascist, he clearly (with hindsight) did not mean to call them neo-fascist, his own party wants him to apologise for calling them neo-fascist - why can't he just do that? Why, when there are these occasional storms in teacups over a politician having said something silly, can the person concerned not simply say: "Yes, actually, I've thought about it, and I didn't mean that after all, sorry." That's what happens in normal life, outside politics, when someone has said something that s/he didn't really mean. I see no reason for Mr Davidson to necessarily resign as Chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee (although the pressure for him to do so will continue to mount unless he simply apologises for having made a foolish remark); I just want him to do what I once did and clarify his words. Until he does so, he looks to me like something of a neo-nincompoop. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Shahid Malik joins I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue

I have never had any particular issues with Shahid Malik, who I met once in passing when he was a Labour minister. However, he now appears to have become a panellist on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, a radio comedy show on which the chairman gives the teams silly things to do. A silly thing that Mr Malik has apparently done is to lend his weight not to the forces of reconciliation in the Middle East, but to those very forces that are surely least likely to achieve anything on this score. Whatever Mr Malik did or did not say at the event in question, his actions are counter-productive to his own cause, if that cause is the creation of a Palestinian state that will live peacefully alongside a secure Israel. It's a shame to see someone who can be so sensible being, on this occasion, so very silly.

More building supplies for Gaza

Interesting to read news of Israel approving $100 million of building supplies for Gaza, welcomed as "a significant step" by Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. Media coverage of this news acts as a reminder that the Gaza situation is, to put it mildly, far from perfect, but this is still good news. Less cheering is news of the latest attacks on Israeli civilian targets from Gaza, which must be terrifying for the people who live in the areas hit. Israel's vulnerability (for all its great deterrent power) is also underlined by today's news about a massive civil defence drill. Anyone who fails to understand Israel's sense of vulnerability is failing to understand one of the key issues in the Israel/Palestine peace process.

INSERT CLICHED JOKE DOG HEADLINE HERE

You can do your own dog joke...Why is it that funny news stories are never actually funny? Like the humour section of a bookshop - not the comic novels, but the Schitts Miscellany of books going after the money of that absurd man Schott. Actually, I've never read Schott's Miscellany and it may be very good, but I couldn't get that last line to scan without changing "that man Schott" to "that absurd man Schott". These things really don't write themselves, you know (perhaps I should try WordPress). Anyway, in yet more evidence that I should never leave the house (metaphorically speaking, as I actually live in a flat), I this evening bumped into a local Lib Dem who asked me if I'd seen the Mail's story about Matthew Offord and a dog. Oh, it's almost tempting just to leave it there, isn't it? You know you should run now while you still can, but like a cop with a torch investigating a dark shed in the opening scene of a horror movie, you just can't resist creeping in a little further.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Listen to the Palestinian people

A new poll shows strong Palestinian support for Salam Fayyad to be Prime Minister in a Fatah/Hamas unity government. The same poll also shows that most Palestinians want a new government to support President Abbas' peace efforts (such as they are). Mr Fayyad is indeed very much the Palestinians' best bet and it is to be hoped that the Palestinian people will be listened to when it comes to who heads their government.

At this point, some people will start shouting at me about how the world refused to listen (and cut off aid) when the Palestinians elected a Hamas government in 2006. That is not true. What actually happened is that the international community immediately offered to work with the Hamas government if it accepted the Quartet Principles (the recognition of Israel, the renunciation of violence, adherence to previous diplomatic agreements), which Hamas refused to do; a huge flow of aid (including UK aid) continued to flood in, including through the EU's Temporary International Mechanism.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Sunday's Big Questions (but no small answers)

Gore Vidal said that one should never turn down an invitation to have sex or appear on television. A couple of years ago, I overlooked an email inviting me to take part in The Big Questions, a TV show that blends Question Time with Kilroy and is (to a greater or lesser extent) intended to be a religious-affairs programme. It's on BBC1 at 10 o'clock on Sunday mornings and so will be unfamiliar to those of you who tend to spend that hour in bed, in church, jogging, in the pub or listening to The Archers (or perhaps doing more than one of those things at once, given the invention of the MP3 player).

Stone the crows (but not the dogs)

As Harold Wilson said, a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on...One such lie would appear to be a silly story about a Jerusalem rabbinical court having sentenced a dog to death by stoning. It has apparently been all over Twitter. Which, given how seriously some people take cruelty to animals, is not as funny as it sounds, as it generates hatred of religious people among dog-lovers. There's enough bad news that's actually true without adding false stories to the pile. It turns out that, as you can read here, it's very simply not true. So we can all now move along and get back to reality.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

BBC kills Haleh Sahabi again

Drinking my coffee and reading the BBC news on digital teletext this morning (does life get any more exciting than that?), I was startled to see that Haleh Sahabi had died. Ms Sahabi died some weeks ago and I blogged about it nearer the time; someone in the BBC's teletext factory clearly today pressed the wrong button and put the story up again as if it was a new one - it's now gone. I used to work in a teletext factory myself (an experience that later enabled me to be possibly the only person ever to make a speech at a Lib Dem party conference about access to teletext for people with disabilities - some of the audience are still snoring now), so I know how easy it is for these mistakes to occur.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Lib Dems and BDS

Those of you who read the Jewish Chronicle's coverage of a Lib Dem councillor's failed attempt to spend a council's time (and by extension money, for time is money at council meetings) one-sidedly condemning Israel (as if foreign policy is a proper concern of any local council - get real), may be interested to know where my party stands on the anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Well, the one time that a Liberal Democrat conference has debated such things was in 2007, when we overwhelmingly passed a motion condemning the proposed academic boycott of Israel. The huge vote to pass that motion (which I drafted - 'drafted' is politician-speak for saying that I wrote it, before it was tidied up a bit by the Local Party that submitted it) says a lot more about my party than do the actions of one local councillor (or more than one local councillor, if any others are now going to emerge and shout "Me too!"). The best guide to where the Lib Dems stand on issues related to Israel/Palestine is this speech by party leader Nick Clegg a few months ago.

A liberal voice worth listening to

Professor Naomi Chazan went down a storm at last year's party conference fringe meeting of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. Professor Chazan is the President of New Israel Fund (NIF), a campaigning civil society group that stands comparison with British groups like Liberty and Stonewall. As a former parliamentarian for Meretz, Professor Chazan is arguably a socialist or a social-democrat rather than a liberal, but she is a still a great leader of liberal and progressive opinion in Israel. I don't always agree with everything that Professor Chazan (or the NIF) says, but I really like this Australian television interview with her, which is a very strong re-statement of the pro-peace, pro-Israeli argument.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Beyond parody in the House of Lords

In a Lords debate last night, a Labour peer gave, as one of his reasons for withdrawing an amendment at the end of a debate: "It is nearly 10 o'clock and I have not eaten yet, as indeed will be the case for most noble Lords." Well, yes. It's important to stop debating in time to get something to eat before bedtime. Is this really a good way to run a Parliament in the year 2011? I suppose I say this with some sympathy for the peer concerned, as we all need to eat, but it still sounds faintly daft.

Sri Lanka through the letter box

Onto my doormat on Tuesday fell a leaflet from British Tamils Forum (BTF), urging me to watch that night's Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka's Killing Fields; I recorded the programme and will watch it. Whether BTF leafleted all local doormats, or only the doormats of people who stood for Parliament last year, I don't know.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

LSE event on Turkey in the World

I went last night to an LSE event on Turkey in the World, following the weekend's re-election for a third term of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A very interesting discussion that can now be viewed online. The sort of reasoned, academic discussion on foreign policy that really should be an example to us all. Nobody shouted, nobody booed, nobody denounced anybody...And it was about all issues in the region, without overly focusing on Israel/Palestine, which, when it was discussed, was at least discussed (mostly) reasonably.

Art on the Underground - how about some trains?

I am reliably informed that man doth not live by bread alone and I'm all for some public subsidy of the arts, but...if Transport for London is cash-strapped, does it really now have several thousand pounds to spend on art on the Central Line? I'm sure it's all marvellous, but what budget is this coming from? At a time when London Underground can't say where it will find the money to fund the Piccadilly Line upgrade, how come they can say where they will find the money for this new art project? We do have to make hard choices when it comes to what we spend public money on, and I question whether this should be the top priority for London Underground at present. We've previously had Philosophy on the Underground, which I am not making up and which was surely nothing more than noise pollution, and now this latest Art on the Underground - could I propose that such things might now "be subject to a short delay to even out gaps in the service"? 

The curious case of Clara Gutteridge

Today's (London) Times had a slightly mystifying story about the deportation from Kenya of a British human rights lawyer called Clara Gutteridge. I can't share the Times' story (which raises as many questions as it answers) as it's hidden behind a pay wall, but what is going on? What is going on, both when it comes to Ms Gutteridge's work in Kenya, and the fate of Al Amin Kimathi? I for one would be pleased to know a lot more about all of this.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Get a load of this guy

You may never previously have heard of Stephen Sizer, but Malaysian television clearly thinks that he is very important indeed. How many millions of people out there are watching this stuff and thinking that this man represents anyone? It is to be hoped that most people, in all parts of the world, have other things to do with their time than watch Mr Sizer on television. 

Lots of news on religious slaughter

No, by 'religious slaughter' I don't mean the Thirty Years War, I mean the kosher/halal slaughter of animals for meat. Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat MEP for London and a Vice-President of Lib Dem Friends of Israel, has an excellent letter in today's Financial Times opposing the proposed Dutch ban on the slaughter of animals without pre-stunning, which is effectively a ban on the production of kosher/halal meat in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

My point being - it isn't actually funny

Re:- my last post on this blog, about A Gay Girl in Syria, which was obviously an attempt at humour on my part. The point of it being that I find Tom MacMaster's behaviour re:- his fake blog utterly risible. I could possibly buy the idea that someone had done a fake Syrian blog for satirical purposes, especially if they wanted, a la Wag the Dog, to highlight just how credulous the international media can sometimes be. That might have been funny, although maybe not, given that people are actually being killed in Syria as I type this. But Mr MacMaster, it seems, was not being satirical. He was attempting to sell a serious message about the reality of the Syrian situation, by posing as a gay woman who was blogging over there and who feared for her life. Forgive me for being poe-faced, but I don't buy that. By all means write a novel about a gay girl in Syria. But faking a true-life account merely generates cynicism and discredits all of those accounts of individual suffering that are real, and that is dangerous, for obvious reasons. You can find more about Mr MacMaster's exploits over at Harry's Place.

"A Lib Dem in Hendon" - blogger unmasked as fake

Following the risible and despicable news about the absurd man who faked A Gay Girl in Syria, the following news has just reached me: A blog purportedly written by a man in London, which described life in Hendon amid the current political unrest, has been revealed to be a hoax. A Lib Dem in Hendon gained a worldwide readership and was closely followed by news organisations. But the true author has now come forward – Matthew Harris, a British man living in New Barnet. Many Lib Dem activists have reacted angrily, accusing him of trivialising or even harming their cause.

Hooray for democracy in Dundee

A great victory for common sense as a one-sided motion to condemn Israel has been thrown out 24-2 in a vote by the good councillors of Dundee. This motion went on about Israel without mentioning Hamas; it is striking that the council's proposed dabbling in foreign affairs extended only to a one-sided consideration of Israel/Palestine, and not to any motions discussing Tibet, Burma or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, leading one to assume that the motion's framers don't think that those places matter so much. Of course, I don't think that local authorities should waste time and taxpayers' money debating foreign policy anyway, but if they must do this, then let them at least do it fairly and impartially, rather than singling out one aspect of one conflict for unique attention. The Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) claims on its website that the motion was "submitted...on behalf of the SPSC Dundee branch". That is a very interesting claim, which I am obviously unable to verify.  The SPSC is a charmless body that has little to say about the meaningful efforts towards Israeli/Palestinian peace that deserve to be supported by all Liberal Democrats. 

Durban III - a case for UK participation?

The Jewish Chronicle (JC) and Jewish News both report accurately that the UK Government is still deciding whether or not to participate in Durban III, the UN-sponsored conference on racism taking place in New York in September. Several countries are boycotting the conference in light of what happened at the Durban I and Durban II conferences, which were so hostile to Israel as to leave many observers (myself included) feeling very uncomfortable indeedIsrael's relationship with the Palestinians is an important international issue, but it is not the single most important issue in the world, and it is obviously not the fulcrum of the international community's fight against the many and various forms of racism that continue to scar humanity.

Monday, 13 June 2011

No good reason for abstract reasoning

What do you think of first when asked to define 'abstract reasoning'? If you're at all similar to me, then the first definition that springs to mind is 'applying reason to the consideration of abstract concepts', or words to that effect. It is increasingly common, particularly in the public sector, to require job applicants to sit an abstract reasoning test as part of the selection process. However, these abstract reasoning tests have nothing to do with abstract reasoning; at least, nothing to do with 'abstract reasoning' as I have just defined it. Instead, these tests have to do with the purely visual aspect of abstract reasoning. It will surprise some of you to learn that abstract reasoning even has a purely visual aspect, so let me explain that abstract reasoning is, in the opinion of the burgeoning assessment-test industry, all about sequences of shapes. Along the lines of: "If these four shapes are the first four in a sequence, then which of these other shapes will come fifth?"

Stanley Fischer and the IMF race

I was almost just knocked off my feet by the enormous whooshing sound created by the extreme rapidity with which Egypt, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates have come out in support of Christine Lagarde in the race to head the IMF. Their sudden willingness to declare a preference for Ms Lagarde might, I would suggest, not be wholly unrelated to the entry into the race of Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. Although I appreciate that Mr Fischer hails from a pariah state, given that he was born in Northern Rhodesia. But seriously, if he is the best candidate (and he might well not be, for all I know) then he (and the others) should be considered on merit. Were anyone to automatically reject him because he currently works in Israel, that would be crazy, at a time when what the world urgently needs is the best possible IMF head, regardless of where s/he comes from.

The Lib Dem Golden Dozen

One of my blog postings has been included in the Lib Dem Golden Dozen, a list of highly recommended blog postings of the week. Hooray! Thanks for that.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

What to do about Syria?

I applaud William Hague's efforts to get a UN resolution on Syria. Although, given that we have ruled out military action, I wonder what, on its own, a UN resolution would achieve? I remember after China's Tianenmen Square massacre, hearing someone say: "I hope the UN throws the book at them!", and even then, in my late teens, I knew that it means little to give a dictatorial regime a dressing down in an international forum. They just throw the book right back at us, usually with half the pages torn out. The same goes for ambassadors being "summoned to the Foreign Office", like they care. But I still applaud the Foreign Secretary's efforts. Something is better than nothing, especially if a UN resolution is accompanied by further sanctions, for what sanctions are worth.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed

I like any story that reminds me of my own undoubted ignorance. Had you previously heard of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed? I hadn't. I am genuinely ashamed to have forgotten - totally forgotten - last year's World Cup bombings in Uganda. Nor did I know much, if anything, about the UN Al Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee and its British head, Richard Barrett. As to what we do in Syria, I don't know. It is easy to identify problems, harder to identify solutions. 

Who now remembers the Armenians?

"Who now remembers the Armenians?", Hitler is supposed to have said, a week before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The implication of his words being: "If nobody now remembers the mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915, then who will notice if we now commit our own mass killings of Jews and others?" There is actually some doubt as to whether or not Hitler used these words on this specific occasion, and some doubt as to what the exact words might have been, but they are still utterly chilling. Who now remembers the 1982 Hama massacre, when thousands of Syrian people were butchered by their country's government?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Security at Lib Dem party conference - it's for the staff as well

A small minority of Lib Dem grassroots party members is getting hot under the collar about increased security measures at our next party conference. But why would the police, etc, impose such measures if they did not consider them to be strictly needed? At a time of enormous financial and logistical pressure on the police and the others, why - why - would they devote time and money to security measures that are anything less than vital? Surely everyone understands that the security is not just for the benefit of people attending Conference, but also to protect the people who work in the conference centre and hotels? If we are to expect workers to earn the minimum wage to clean our hotel rooms, pour our coffee and microwave our cornish pasties, then the least we can do is extend them the protection from terrorism that the police think is needed, rather than seeking to dilute that protection for a few people's own self-righteous reasons.

Proud to be a community disorganiser

Martin Bright has written well today about some of the problems associated with London Citizens and Citizens UK, two bodies that have appointed themselves as the UK's premier 'community organisers'. There is much to admire about both bodies and, especially, their grassroots members, with many of whom I would have much in common. However, ever since hearing that David Miliband planned to rejuvenate the Labour Party by turning Labour hacks into community organisers, I have been wondering what I think about the whole approach.

Detention of child asylum seekers

My avatar at the Jewish Chronicle blog has written the following:
Martin Bright has written two extremely important and valuable articles about London Citizens in today's JC. I propose to return to that topic in more detail soon, as I have my own reflections on the points raised by Martin Bright, who is absolutely right about this. My one quibble is about an incidental detail of the story. One of the articles states, with regard to the detention of child asylum seekers, that: "(Nick) Clegg announced after the election last year that the policy would be scrapped. In fact, child detention has continued." Is that entirely right? I thought that child detention had indeed been scrapped, or at least so radically reformed as to now be acceptable, with even the Refugee Council having given this a cautious welcome. A small point, but perhaps worth making, as this is something that I care about very deeply, as the grandchild of asylum seekers.
UPDATE: Martin Bright's articles about London Citizens, which I suggest are required reading, can be read here and here. Also, over at the JC, I have just posted:
The JC story concerned now says: "In fact, child detention has continued, although the government now plans to set up family-friendly "pre-departure accommodation" in a village near Gatwick Airport." Fair enough - that is a reasonable summary of what is happening.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Tories and democracy

Next time you hear any Conservatives talk about clean air or road safety, please don't assume that they actually have any interest in those things - not if their latest behaviour at the London Assembly is anything to go by. As the Standard reports, the Assembly's Tory members yesterday walked out of a meeting before motions on these things could be debated, meaning that the meeting was inquorate, so no debate could take place. How is that democratic? I could understand if the Tories wanted to debate these matters, disagree with others, and then vote against the motions at the end, although I support the motions myself - that's democracy. But walking out, to prevent a debate taking place - that's just childish and deeply undemocratic. And as Caroline Pidgeon has written at Lib Dem Voice, the Tories sadly have a history of this behaviour at the London Assembly.

But then, we've seen similar shenanigans in my own London Borough of Barnet (where the Tories have sadly been elected to run the council) over the years. How often, over the years, have I seen the Tories start a Barnet council meeting by voting to alter the order in which items are listed on the pre-arranged agenda, so that opposition motions don't get debated after all? It stinks. People vote Tory on auto-pilot and then complain about how the council is run, without seeming to notice the connection: if you elect these Tories, then you get these Tories, and if you don't like what they are doing, then you should vote for somebody else.

UPDATE: My Lib Dem colleague Mark Pack has also written interestingly about this.

All gas and gaiters

Like the Chief Rabbi, I am a strong opponent of the disestablishment of the Church of England. You might ask what I think the Church of England has to do with me. Well, one answer is that it has a lot to do with all English people, of all faiths and of none. Another answer is that my Dad was born into an Anglican family, and although, he, like me, is basically an agnostic, I'm descended from generations of members of the Church of England, and I take that connection seriously. Few things amuse me more than adopting a conservative stance on things like the use of the traditional hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer at those Anglican weddings, funerals and christenings that I find myself attending. This despite the fact that it is absolutely none of my business how my Christian friends and relations worship, as I am not a Christian, I am Jewish, as my mother is Jewish and I was raised as a member of a synagogue, attending most weeks when I was a kid and still popping along to whichever shul takes my fancy once a year or so, usually at Yom Kippur.

One of the sins for which Jews atone at Yom Kippur is the sin of attending "useless conferences". Clearly, as a Liberal Democrat, I have never attended a useless conference, and have only ever been at conferences that are very useful indeed. This means that I don't need to atone for that particular sin, and so can spend more of the day atoning for my other sins, which is a good thing, as one day really isn't enough to atone for all of the dreadful sins that I have committed in the previous year, many of which sadly involve sausage rolls, Greggs the Baker and my ability to resist everything except temptation.

So, yes, as well as being a monarchist, and increasingly agreeing with Evelyn Waugh that it is quite impertinent of me to use my vote to advise the Sovereign on whom she wishes to form a government, I am a proud antidisestablishmentarian. Should the fateful day ever come when a Liberal Democrat Conference again wastes its time and mine debating disestablishmentarianism, I shall insist that the remit of the debate is extended to include a discussion of the arguments for and against the disestablishment of the United Synagogue, which was established (note that word) by an Act of Parliament in 1870. I do not favour any such disestablishment, but we surely couldn't debate the separation of church and state without also debating the separation of synagogue and state (a burning issue on which passions run so high that it generates almost as many fights in pubs as did last month's referendum on the Alternative Vote). One has to hope that the day on which such a silly conference debate takes place is a distant one indeed. Incidentally, this is all quite separate from the Coalition Government's mooting of various reforms of the monarchy, which I am more than happy to support.

So, the world is on fire, but, apparently, the most important news in the world today is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has written an article in the New Statesman. I rather like Rowan Williams, not least because he is the only person, apart from myself, who still has anything nice to say about a 1988 Doctor Who story called The Happiness Patrol, to which, gloriously, Dr Williams referred, quite clearly and in so many words, in his 2011 Easter Sermon, demonstrating that, if nothing else, he has no fear of descending with me into the depths of utter bathos. I even like his New Statesman article, which warns of the problems facing our democracy, the challenges facing this Coalition Government and the fact that "we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently". Thinking aloud and posing challenges is what religious leaders are for, even if some people don't always like it. The Government need tremble neither at Dr Williams' words, nor at Lord Sacks having written, in the same issue of the New Statesman, that: "Philanthropy alone cannot fill the gap left by government cutbacks." It is nothing more (nor less) than an interesting contribution to the debate, from which the media circus will have moved on within days.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

What's missing from Syria

Skipping lightly over the latest intriguing and potentially disturbing news story about my distant cousin Albert Einstein ("Tell me about your other grandfather," someone once said to Sir Clement Freud, to which Freud responded sonorously: "He was the father of psycho-analysis"), and turning to events in Syria, I've realised what's missing from the Syrian scenario. What's missing is nuclear weapons. The dilemma of deciding how best to respond to events in Syria (today defined by Prime Minister David Cameron as an issue of conscience), would surely be that much more complicated if Syria had a nuclear capability. So let's not shed too many pious tears over Israel's having destroyed that capability before it was built. What would we be doing now if Syria had nuclear arms? That is just one question that I'd like to see answered. Others include:
1. Was Hamza al-Khatib tortured? Although what matters is that he is dead. That is tragic enough in itself. For what it's worth, I think that it is possible that the regime is telling the truth when it says he was not tortured. It doesn't necessarily matter, given that he is dead and that is tragic enough, but what's interesting is how, given Syria's status as the current Crisis of the Week, a tragic case like that of Hamza al-Khatib can be adopted as a cause celebre by the international talkerati, without any dispassionate analysis of what actually happened to him. The story of Muhammad al-Durrah is a sad reminder of how truth is often the first casualty of war.
2. What, in the ongoing Arab Spring, would have been happening today in Iraq if Sadaam Hussein and his regime were still in power? 
3. Who actually are the opposition in Syria? One would like to be optimistic, but who actually are these people?
4. If (and it is a huge if) the disgusting Syrian government is telling the truth about the deaths of so many members of its security forces, then who has killed these people - is this now a civil war?
5. What is President Assad up to with his country's Kurdish community, and is this a serious development, or mere shadow-boxing?
6. Turkey's relationship with Syria is an intriguing onion that is being peeled day-by-day; when the peeling stops - i.e. when some semblance of stability returns to Syria - which layer of the onion's skin will have been reached: a layer that involves bolstering Assad, or a layer that involves planning for what comes after his imminent departure?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Peace moves in Tel Aviv, Washington, Paris, London - what about Ramallah?

I am not a conventional peace campaigner. When it comes to Israel's right to take tough action in its defence, I am sometimes fairly hawkish. Groups like J Street, "the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans", whose 2009 Washington launch conference I had the privilege to attend as a British observer, are some way to the left of me. That said, I am a passionate supporter of all sensible efforts to achieve peace between Israel, the Palestinians and their Arab neighbours, including the latest French effort based on the concept of "two states for two peoples"; the Americans (contrary to some earlier expectations) are clearly not explicitly opposed to what the French are doing, whatever differences remain over whether or not to have an Israeli/Palestinian peace conference in Paris (and I'd love to know what British role there might be in this French initiative, given how closely London and Paris have been working on foreign policy).

'Peace' is not a magic wand that will wave away all problems, but it is surely possible to envisage a scenario in which two states, Israel and Palestine, co-exist, and that has to be an improvement on where we are today. The question, obviously, is how we get there, given how close we have come before, and given how many obstacles remain. I don't know the answer to that question. Neither, it must be said, does the Israeli peace movement, for all its undoubted benevolence, passion and tenacity.

Believing that as I do, it is, nonetheless, possible for me to commend them for shouting their message of peace from the rooftops, as who but the most cynical can oppose a sincere, impassioned call for peace? At the weekend in Tel Aviv, thousands of Israelis marched for peace. Whether they represent many people beyond Israel's increasingly beleaguered, divided left-wing minority (which is perhaps showing some unexpected signs of life), I don't know, but an Israel that has such a peace movement is, for me, preferable to one that doesn't. 

I was interested to read this account of the weekend's march by Alexander Bodin Saphir, a board member of Yachad, the UK's own new "pro-Israel, pro-peace" movement. Yachad is basically the much-mooted, long-awaited British take on where J Street is coming from, and a lot of what it says will chime strongly with many Liberal Democrats. Again, I would say that Yachad is some way to the left of where I stand personally, although I liked this particular piece by its chair, Daniel Reisel, last week.

Where, meanwhile, is the Palestinian peace movement? Not only among the Palestinians themselves, but also among their proclaimed supporters in countries including the UK? At a time when British local authorities are passing inane motions that mention Palestinian suffering without even pretending to mention the threats faced by Israelis, where, among the Palestinians' most vocal supposed friends, are the voices calling for the sort of compromises that would bring about peace, justice and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike? As opposed, that is, to these people who happily support Hamas, despite Hamas' barbaric mistreatment of the Palestinian people of Gaza. Where, also, for that matter, is a Palestinian equivalent of Meir Dagan?

UPDATE on Wednesday 15 June: Germany's liberal Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, has come out strongly against a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence at the UN in September, adding to a growing chorus of voices saying that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will be best-solved by negotiations, not by unilateral action.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Scotland's council of despair

Geoffrey Alderman, with whom I once appeared on Iranian state television, has referred more than once in his writings to the fact that he was circumcised by the doctor who later performed the same operation on Prince Charles. As Herbert Farjeon so nearly put it, this means that I have been on Iranian state television with a man, who was circumcised by a man, who circumcised the Prince of Wales...Anyway, Professor Alderman's latest column is about West Dunbartonshire Council's absurd ban on books produced in Israel. It is, of course, only Israeli books that are being banned. China's occupation of Tibet has not prompted a similar ban on Chinese books. The flow of books from Burma need not, apparently, be interrupted in response to anything that happens over there. Nor, for that matter, are the finest minds in Scottish local government moved to ban books produced in the territory ruled by Hamas, which continues to oppress the Palestinian people of Gaza

Clearly, the council's boycott of Israel is motivated by its concern for human suffering, including in Gaza. And what suffering this is. We are talking, after all, about a place with a relatively low life expectancy, "with high levels of deprivation, low levels of economic activity and a small business base." The population is declining and ageing, with many people being required to subsist on a variety of benefits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, income from tourism is declining, while rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer are all higher than the average. Many children live in a household in which no-one works. It is heart-rending to read of such suffering. Never mind Gaza, I'm talking about life in West Dunbartonshire, from whose corporate plan I have taken all of these grim facts. Perhaps we should send a flotilla? 

Clearly, messing around in foreign policy is the best way for councillors to solve the considerable problems faced by the people of West Dunbartonshire. Perish the thought that residents might prefer the council to sort out a few local problems before it brings peace to the Middle East. I wonder how much it cost to hold the meeting at which councillors spent time passing this absurd boycott motion?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The news from Israel's border with Syria

So there I am listening to the Radio 4 News at midday after half-listening to Desert Island Discs (who is Alfie Boe? Is is he someone who sings popular songs for young people?), while keeping half an ear open for an imminent episode of Just A Minute, and trying to decide (using my own version of the Alternative Vote) whether I do (or do not) fancy making a second pot of coffee. I'd already read the News on teletext, or whatever the BBC calls its red button service these days, earlier in the morning, while drinking the first (and, thus far, only) pot of coffee and not-listening to The Archers, which I'm finding rather boring at the moment, so I thought that I knew what was happening in the world, only for the wireless newsreader to suddenly brim with that special sort of urgency which the BBC reserves for the first appearance on its networks of a big new rolling story, the story in question being this one, about "Israeli soldiers (having) opened fired on pro-Palestinian protesters in Syria as they marched on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights", as the Corporation puts it.

I do not dispute the seriousness of this story for one moment and it is clearly tragic that people have been killed. I yield to no-one in my admiration for the BBC, which must always be allowed to report the news exactly as it sees fit (although it should also publish the Balen Report - what can possibly be in it that needs to be kept secret?). One could ask why protests today in the Middle East are apparently so much more newsworthy than protests today in Bangladesh, but that is a rhetorical question to which I know that I will never get an answer. Many media outlets see the Israel/Palestine conflict as the centre of the moral universe, and nothing that I say here will alter that. Apparently the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has killed five million people in fifteen years, is a smaller problem for the world than the Arab/Israeli conflict, which has killed some tens of thousands of people in sixty-three years - I live in hope that somebody will one day explain to me why this is the case. Since I regularly bang on about Israel, I can hardly criticise others for doing so, and I am a committed campaigner for an Israeli/Palestinian peace - but I do question the proportion of news coverage that is given to Israel/Palestine in comparison to other issues.

The BBC's report of this incident is not necessarily inaccurate, although for a fuller amplification of the issues involved, I would urge people to read this report from Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper which pulls no punches in its coverage of Israeli government actions (and which frequently draws virulent abuse from the rabid right for that very reason, which is greatly to its credit). As this other piece in Haaretz perceptively points out: "the Syrian regime appears to have an interest in creating friction on the border, something that is already creating tension on the Israeli side." I have blogged previously about the dire situation faced by Palestinians living under Syria's disgusting regime. That regime's days might well be numbered, raising interesting questions about who the regime's opponents actually are.

UPDATE on Wednesday 15 June: There is breaking news about the Syrian Government's possible involvement in the events of Sunday 5 June, and I urge everyone to read it.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Great news on Territorial Army review

Having successfully campaigned as a Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate against Labour's Territorial Army (TA) cuts, I am very pleased to see today's news about a likely boost to the number of TA reservists. This ties in with the Government's response to my Downing Street petition about this issue - thanks again to the thousands of people who signed. I appreciate that the Strategic Defence and Security Review is still ongoing, but this appears to be a very positive outcome for the TA.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Boris Johnson and my latest broadcast

Somebody once referred to me as "the Boris Johnson of the Liberal Democrats, but without the charm". This was back around the time when Boris Johnson was most famous for offending people and it was intended to be a terrible insult, but I thought it was a marvellous idea. I wouldn't mind having either Mr Johnson's bank balance or his record of winning elections. 

Anyway, I went last night to LBC's Talk London event, at which London's Mayor was grilled by members of the public on a variety of matters, a few of which even related to things that his office actually controls, as opposed to many burning issues that are absolutely nothing to do with him, but which the audience still wanted to ask him about at some considerable length. These people were asking questions about things that matter to them very deeply; coming to this event and putting a question to the Mayor was clearly the only way in which they felt able to plug into the system that delivers public services - all public services, including those over which the Mayor has no control whatsoever. So it would be wrong of me to knock them for that. 

I enjoyed the event very much, but the atmosphere was pretty scrappy, with lots of heckling and people standing up to announce that they had appointed themselves to head various groups that represent absolutely nobody but themselves, and why is the Mayor ignoring them? It was almost (but not quite) as raucous as the Hendon Residents' Forum.

After the event, Winkball was interviewing members of the audience, myself included, so here is my latest broadcast to the world, in which I plumb new depths of profundity and controversy.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Shouldn't this have been a bigger story?

A small story in the Standard alerted me to the death of Haleh Sahabi. I had never previously heard of her, or of her late father, Ezatollah Sahabi. I feel that I ought to have heard more about this, and I wish that it had been more prominently reported in the media, although I appreciate that I have a responsibility to seek these stories out, rather than simply expecting them always to be spoon-fed to me. In the context of what is happening in the wider region, Iran cannot be ignored.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Have you got a spare nine minutes?

If so, then I heartily recommend this short BBC World Service documentary, about a tragic piece of history with which many people reading this blog will probably be unfamiliar.