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Sunday, 27 November 2011

Welsh in Parliament

Was just representing Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel in a cross-party panel discussion at an event (http://www.thebigtentforisrael.org/the-conference/4555431609) in Manchester called Big Tent for Israel. Guto Bebb, Conservative MP for Aberconwy, said something extraordinary. He said that, while Israel's Arab MPs quite rightly can stand up in Parliament and speak in Arabic (which is one of Israel's official languages), Welsh MPs can't address the British Parliament in Welsh! With Welsh being an officially recognised minority language of the United Kingdom, it's forbidden to speak Welsh in Parliament and that's outrageous. This is up there with not carrying an official ID card. As a liberal, I demand the right to be elected an MP (or be granted a dukedom) and to address Parliament in Lowland Scots.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Congratulations to President Assad

Congratulations go to Syria for securing election to not one, but two committees of UNESCO (http://www.canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/42656). As the Arab League stands poised to finally act on Syrian human rights abuses (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15887364), UNESCO has just elected Syria to its human rights committee. At a time when Syria has never been condemned more by a range of NGOs, UNESCO has elected Assad's country to its committee for NGO relations.

You may say that all countries get to have a go on these committees and that it doesn't matter. In that case, I would say that we might as well stop pretending that such bodies stand for anything and are worth bothering with, and it is you, not me, who is being cynical - I have a wholly uncynical desire for UN bodies to stand for their self-proclaimed values and to not-elect brutal dictatorships to their human rights committees. Otherwise what is the point of such bodies?

UNESCO's own director-general has herself questioned the efficacy of now appointing Syria to these committees. But then that is the same director-general who recently summoned the Israeli Ambassador to complain about a cartoon in an Israeli newspaper (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/unesco-files-complaint-against-israeli-delegation-over-haaretz-cartoon-1.394889) - the equivalent of summoning the British Ambassador to complain about a cartoon in the Guardian. The one country in the Middle East that actually has a free press and not repressive state media, and she summons its ambassador because of a cartoon in an independent newspaper. Small wonder that, when the ambassador reported back on this, the Israeli Foreign Ministry cabled back: "It seems your work environment is getting more and more reminiscent of 'Animal Farm.'"

Animal Farm indeed, as there is something distinctly Orwellian about progressives' long blindness to the faults of such deeply repressive Middle Eastern regimes as Syria. A blindness that never extended to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, which was elevated from being one important issue (which it is) to being the issue that supposedly trumps all others, with "the Middle East" no longer referring to a region of many countries, but to the situation facing Israel and the Palestinians.

This focus on the Palestinians to the exclusion of all other Middle East issues (including issues that are of equal, if not greater importance) is delusional and helps no-one (including the Palestinians, whose just cause has been exploited by dictators keen to distract their populations from the problems of their own countries in the region). As a delusion, it stands comparison to the blindness of much past progressive opinion to the reality of Stalin's regime in the USSR.

It's a cliche to talk of a world turned upside down. If UNESCO's members can think that it is OK to put Syria on its human rights committee, then it is not the world that is upside down, but the world's way of looking at itself.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Not the Finkler Question

A correspondent to Friday's Jewish Chronicle writes: "...if the ideal of a liberal democracy in Israel is being subverted by the increasingly influential strictly-Othodox, then I have to ask myself the Finkler Question: how loyal should a diaspora Jew be to the state of Israel?". He wrote his letter after reading this piece (http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/57850/this-israel-not-one-i-love) by Jonathan Freedland in another edition of the same newspaper.

But that isn't "the Finkler Question". The Finkler Question, in the superb novel of that name by Howard Jacobson, is simply intended to be "the Jewish Question". Neither the novel nor any of its protagonists actually asks a question with a question mark at its end, least of all "How loyal should a diaspora Jew be to the state of Israel?".

Being pro-Israeli and pro-American has nothing to do with being 'loyal' to Israel or to the United States; it has to do with being supportive of those countries' stance on various geo-political issues, while also sometimes disagreeing with some policies of each country's government of the day.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Save the Oyster

Writing as myself, and not as a Liberal Democrat (I don't know what all other London Lib Dems think about this), I am strongly, instinctively opposed to any moves by Transport for London (TfL) to phase out Oyster cards. We've only had Oysters for five minutes anyway and it is already a modern, high-tech and convenient way to travel. I detect zero desire among passengers for it to be replaced. Unlike so many other big IT projects, it has actually been a great success and very popular, so why tinker with it unnecessarily?

The supposedly cash-strapped TfL has somehow managed to find £75 million to enable passengers to swipe their debit and credit cards instead of using an Oyster or paying cash; the London Assembly's Transport Committee (chaired by Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon) has raised a number of concerns about this (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-15777441).

This follows TfL's recent proposal to eventually phase out Oyster cards entirely, in favour of swiping debit and credit cards (or paying cash, which means paying a higher fare). Why? Who wants this to happen? What was the point in spending millions on creating Oyster cards if we are now doing this five minutes later?

One in five people has no debit or credit card. Also, it is one thing for me to be over-charged on my Oyster card and get £6.50 re-funded to it some days later. It would be another thing for someone on a fixed income to be over-charged on their debit card, meaning that the £30 that they were about to withdraw from their current account before a night out is now £20.
Or, quite seriously, if someone had ensured that they'd left £700 in their current account so that the rent can be paid by standing order on Wednesday, before they get paid their salary on Thursday, and then an over-payment to TfL left them a quid or two short of £700 on the day in question, then the rent wouldn't be paid after all and that's disastrous for the person concerned.

No, no, no. Nobody wants this to happen. It's a stupid idea and a waste of money. Maybe people should be allowed to swipe debit or credit cards instead of Oyster if they want to (although is it really worth spending £75 million to enable them to do so?), but only if the existence of the Oyster is absolutely guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Media Alert: Islam Channel tonight on Israel/Palestine

For those of you who are interested, I am today recording an appearance (discussing issues to do with Israel and the Palestinians) on The World This Week on the Islam Channel, a channel that can be watched in the UK on Sky channel 813, Freesat channel 693 and live on the internet. This is presumably for the edition of the programme that goes out at 22.00 tonight (Thursday) and again at 07.00 on Saturday. If it is available online afterwards, I'll post a link to that. The Islam Channel is not beyond criticism, but I believe in appearing (unpaid, in this instance) on any British TV channel that is lawful and regulated by Ofcom, if given an opportunity to put across a point of view that I consider to be important.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

A quizzical examination

After my mildly caustic comments about Barnet Liberal Democrats' Quiz Supper, the whole thing was a great success. Two colleagues arrived to find a hall filled with joyful people tucking into the caviar canapes before the main course of venison, all washed down by the finest wines in all of christendom. Then (seriously) they realised that they'd gone to last year's venue, in Mill Hill, and were at another local body's quiz supper. They realised their error in time to join us in Whetstone for the fish and chips and questions including: In the British Cabinet, who is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? (it's Owen Paterson); In the Carry On films, which actor played Dr Tinkle, WC Boggs and Stuart Farquar? (it was Kenneth Williams) and Which former Prime Minister said "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie?" (it was Margaret Thatcher, advising all PM's to get a deputy as dependable as her own Willie Whitelaw). It was good fun, actually. Great fish and chips and money raised for the Local Party. Small voluntary groups in church halls are the backbone of the country.

No South Sudan Solidarity Campaign?

One of the sillier things that people like me sometimes say is: "Why can't people bang on as much about other conflicts as they do about Israel/Palestine?" It is silly because I myself often bang on about Israel/Palestine, so I can't blame others for also doing so. However, I can't help saying what I'm now about to say. When Israel and Hamas fought their Gaza War in 2008/9, the world and its media treated it as the number-one crisis of the day, with saturation news coverage, student sit-ins and emergency motions in support of the Palestinians. Now I look at what's happening right now in South Sudan (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15708945), and I see that the response is minimal, to say the least. Why is that? Who gets to decide which people's suffering is most important? I missed the meeting where we all decided that one.

Friday, 11 November 2011

UK cash for Israeli Arab projects

As a British taxpayer, a Liberal Democrat and a friend of Israel, I am pleased to read reports (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/58049/uk-envoy-fears-israel-too-divided and http://www.totallyjewish.com/news/national/?content_id=17271) that the UK's Coalition Government "is to put £40,000 into a programme to promote better ties between Jews and Arabs in Israel". Through the UK Task Force on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel (http://www.uktaskforce.org/), this has been established as a key priority for a range of British Jewish and pro-Israeli organisations. The UK has a tradition of an activist foreign policy, which means giving money to NGOs in other countries; other countries are equally entitled to give money to NGOs in this country. Says Jewish News:
The UK's ambassador to Israel has criticised some of the legislation going through the Knesset as discriminatory and warned that it is corroding the country's image.
Addressing the New Israel Fund's annual human rights award dinner, Matthew Gould said: "I find the widening gaps in Israel, between Jew and Arab, the centre and periphery, rich and poor, upsetting."
Gould, who declared himself a "life-long supporter" of the NIF, added: "Israel's image is corroded when legislation goes through the Knesset that appears to be discriminatory. This contradicts the vision of Israel's founders, who believed in Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, but where all citizens are equal."
He added: "This worries me. It affects the peace process. When the talks started, at Madrid 20 years ago, Israel's Arabs were seen as a bridge between the Jewish state and its neighbours. Now, however, they are alienated and feel second class."
Gould announced that the Foreign Office was providing 40,000 pounds in funding to two NIF-supported organisations, Shatil and the Israel-Arab Task Force in Akko and Lod.
The awards dinner raised 140,000 pounds, an almost 30 percent increase on last year's ceremony.
Also addressing the event was outspoken Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua. He urged diaspora Jews to take part in helping Israelis work towards peace and social justice.
The danger Israel faced today, he said, was "not military. It's existential and what kind of Israel it will be; whether it's a liberal democracy or a binational state that will slide towards apartheid or religious extremism. We and you are brothers and sisters and you must help us".
The recipient of the human rights award was Barbara Epstein, the director of Community Advocacy, for her outstanding work in the area of social and economic justice.
New York-born Epstein said: "It is a great honour for me to receive this award after 18 years in the field of Social and Economic rights."
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, in a video address, praised Epstein. "Barbara's work...has made an impact throughout the entire city. Usually quiet and behind the scenes, Barbara's influence can be felt wherever there are those in need.

"Barbara chose to help those in need fulfil their rights, that sometimes they are not even aware of, and help people resolve problems they cannot manage on their own."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

JC's Martin Bright on Nick Clegg

I was very interested to read this typically candid piece (http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/analysis/58043/clegg-what-you-see-what-you-get) by Jewish Chronicle Political Editor Martin Bright, about Nick Clegg's recent comments on how best to counter extremism (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/11/nick-clegg-on-extremism.html?m=1).

Martin Bright writes: "It may come as a surprise...that...Nick Clegg has taken such a strong stance on...the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis). The decision by ministers to cancel a civil service recruitment fair organised by Fosis because the organisation had "failed to challenge sufficiently terrorist and extremist ideologies" was a bold one. Mr Clegg's comments to the Community Security Trust in Manchester last week were intended to illustrate his "muscular liberalism"...(It) is important that he has sent a signal that the government will not endorse or fund Fosis events...Mr Clegg has always argued for a policy of engagement with radical Islam but he and others within the party have been keen to dismiss the idea that the Liberal Democrats are anti-Israel. Exactly a year ago, he gave a speech to Lib Dem Friends of Israel which emphasised his party's support for a change in the law of universal jurisdiction."

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cuba's Castro clan out-tweeted

I hate Cuba's communist dictatorship. My hatred is intensified by the hypocrisy of all those on the British Left who have ever defended Castro and his regime. How is a communist boot in the face any different from a fascist boot in the face? How is Castro's suppression of free speech any different from Pinochet's? How is holidaying in Castro's Cuba any different from holidaying in apartheid-era South Africa?

To those who would say "Yes, but Cuba has a marvellous health service", I would say "Yes, but mad monetarists used to say that Pinochet's Chile had a marvellous economy - you can't use either a brilliant health service or a brilliant economy to justify making it illegal to say 'I'd like someone else to be my country's president'". If you spent your student days campaigning for left-wing anti-democrats in Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela, then that is your problem and not mine - even in my youth, I was never that stupid, and my conscience is clear on that score.

Which brings me to the wonderful story of Yoani Sanchez (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-15649113). President Castro's daughter went on Twitter to spout drivel for the regime, and Ms Sanchez, a prominent Cuban blogger, went straight back at her with an argument for free speech. To which the junta's First Daughter responded with: "Your focus on tolerance reproduces the old structures of power." That's Cuban socialism for you - tough on tolerance and tough on the causes of tolerance.

As the BBC explains: "The public exchange of views between President Raul Castro's daughter and one of his most outspoken critics is very unusual in communist Cuba, where political opposition is banned and the media is controlled by the state." The BBC also says: "(Internet access) is restricted and available only with government permission - although since 2009 Cubans have been able to use internet cafes, mostly in hotels, and there is a strong black market for internet connections."

A ban on political opposition, state control of the media and restrictions on internet access - and yet, until there is a row involving a Twitter feed and the President's daughter, nobody appears to care. To which my very simple question is: why not?
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Monday, 7 November 2011

Barnet Liberal Democrats' Quiz Supper on Saturday 12 November

June is unavailable for comment
Do you enjoy sitting in draughty church halls, eating fried food and answering trivia questions while people shout "We can't hear!" at the quizmaster in a tone that implies that he's talking too quietly on purpose? If so, then Barnet Liberal Democrats' Quiz Supper this Saturday could be the event for you. Because, this week on Terry and June, Terry (played as ever by Matthew Harris) is again setting and asking the questions at this annual event, with the usual hilarious consequences. Questions that I posed at last year's event included: "In the British Cabinet, who is the Secretary of State for Wales?" (it's Cheryl Gillan), "What is a Worcester Pearmain?" (it's an apple) and "Could my life get any more like an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles?" (that question remains unanswered).

Sorry. I am only joking. These events are great fun and raise a lot of money for the Local Party. The fish and chips are coming from a really good place that's actually a restaurant as well as a takeaway joint and will be very good. And the church hall won't really be draughty. So, the event starts (with fish and chips followed by a quiz, with a break later on for coffee and dessert) at 7pm on Saturday 12 November, at St Johns Church Hall, Friern Barnet Lane, N20 0LW in Whetstone in North London. Very near the Tube Station and on lots of bus routes. It's £15 per person including supper (fish and chips or a vegetarian alternative). You're welcome to bring a bottle of wine to drink; beer will be available in return for a donation. Please also bring things to go into the raffle as prizes. 

There'll be no politics, so this is an event for everyone - you can either come as part of a team (we're aiming for teams of eight to nine people), or if you come on your own, we'll allocate you to a team. So that we know about numbers (and people's dietary requirements - my dietary requirement is a three-course meal ordered from the a la carte menu at the Hotel de la Matelote in Boulogne), you must please email Geoff Jacobs on geoffrey.jacobs@talk21.com Any friends of mine reading this who fancy coming along, please give me a shout and we can sort that out. Hope to see lots of people there.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Nick Clegg on extremism

Very interesting to see the Jewish Chronicle's (JC) report of Nick Clegg's commendable comments on how best to counter extremism (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/57759/clegg-fosis-has-failed-challenge-extremist-ideologies), in a speech the other night. "Engage to change, yes, endorse and fund, no" about sums it up.

JC quotes him as saying in the speech:

"...when individuals and groups express attitudes that are hostile to Jews - Muslim and non-Muslim alike, that cannot be tolerated.

"And we need to be tough and smart in our approach. I've always believed (in) the general principle that you don't win the fight by leaving the ring, you don't walk away from the battlefield and let bigots spread hate unchallenged. You engage, confident in the power of argument, confident in the power of liberal values to defeat prejudice. Liberalism is muscular, it's not passive.

"I will always defend the right of ministers to take the fight to those who wish to divide our society.

"But of course there are limits. Some organisations we have no choice but to shut down. If we (are) concerned enough about their activities we will, as a last resort, consider proscribing them. We won't provide funding for groups who advocate intolerance, and engaging to change is not the same as endorsing.

"To give you an example, we recently cancelled a recruitment fair aimed at increasing applications by Muslims to the civil service. The proposed partner organisation was the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), an umbrella organisation which has failed to challenge sufficiently terrorist and extremist ideologies.

"If ministers want to meet that organisation, setting out strongly the standards we expect, I'm all for it, but am I willing for Her Majesty's Government to treat them as a credible partner? Absolutely not. Engage to change, yes, endorse and fund, no."

The background to this story about Fosis is at: http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/57198/theresa-may-blocks-islam-group-jobs-event. Obviously, one supports measures to encourage black and minority ethnic people (Muslims very much included) to apply to join the civil service - that's not the issue. The issue, as Mr Clegg says, is that government will not spend our taxes funding and endorsing "an umbrella organisation which has failed to challenge sufficiently terrorist and extremist ideologies," be that organisation Jewish, Muslim, Christian or anything else.

Steve Williams' apology

I know nothing about Steve Williams, Tiger Woods' former caddie. He said something (what, I don't know) about Woods that caused a row. He has now said: "I now realise how my comments could be construed as racist. That was not my intent. I apologise to Tiger and anyone else I have offended." Oh, if only everyone who is ever accused of racism could just do the same...Especially as Williams has avoided the weasel words "I apologise if anyone was offended" or "I apologise to anyone who may have been offended" - people always say that when they know full well that people have been offended, so why the element of doubt? The supposed "right to offend" is actually balanced, in an adult society, by a duty to try to be polite and to consider the sensitivities of others. It doesn't seem a lot to ask.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Nick Clegg's comments on Iran

Fascinating to read Nick Clegg's comments on Iran and its nuclear programme, as reported by the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15580907) and the Jewish Chronicle (JC - http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/57723/clegg-wont-rule-out-strike-iran). Of course, he is simply re-stating the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government's well-established position, but it is fascinating nonetheless. According to the JC (under the headline "Clegg won't rule out strike on Iran"), Mr Clegg said: "...we want to see a negotiated solution. But as for other outcomes, clearly, you don't rule anything out in a situation as grave as this."

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Nick Clegg speech to CST

On my way to Manchester for Nick Clegg's speech to the Northern Dinner of a charity called the Community Security Trust (CST - http://www.thecst.org.uk/). According to the Jewish Chronicle (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/57683/clegg-i-want-put-cst-out-business) and Jewish News (http://www.totallyjewish.com/news/national/c-17221/clegg-id-like-to-put-cst-out-of-business-one-day/):

"The deputy prime minister will tell the CST's Manchester dinner that it's "profoundly disturbing" that some wish to harm the community with vandalism and physical attacks. "Not everyone outside the community understands that it is normal for small children to be perfectly comfortable with men on walkie-talkies guarding their Hebrew classes. Or synagogues having CCTV, or major events involving airport style security," he will tell the gathering hours after visiting a Jewish school in the region.

"If I'm honest, I would like to put the CST out of business. We all crave a time when none of this is needed. But, for now, you provide a hugely important service. Not just for the Jewish community - I know you do a lot of work to help other faith groups tackle hate crime too."

"During his address, the Liberal Democrat leader will also say that he "never fails to be inspired by the Jewish community" from the "depth of your religious traditions" and "rich cultural heritage" to its contribution to life in this country. "Indeed the history of Jews in Britain is, itself, a history of some of the greatest figures in British arts, education, business and politics. And when you look at the Jewish community today it is difficult not to be impressedby your pride in being part of a community that generates so much warmth, kindness and generosity. Your charitable work. Your volunteer networks, people who work tirelessly towards the goal of tikkun olam."

"And referring to the community's "phenomenal capacity to work in coalition: Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, Masorti", he joked: "I'd be grateful for any tips."
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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Carry on Parking

This great parking row in the West End...I have, in my past professional life, had a great many meetings with the parking and transport teams at Westminster City Council. No, wait come back, this is actually interesting. Let me tell you a secret. Boris Johnson does not run London. Westminster City Council runs London - the parts of London that most tourists think of as London, in any case. Westminster itself, the West End, Soho, Chinatown, Covent Garden - it is a world-class operation, managing the built environment, transport and public safety in the world's greatest metropolis. Some of these people are giants among their peers in other world cities.

So what's up with this parking row? I don't know. I haven't read the council papers detailing the proposed new charges. It does seem an awful shame that the West End's varied business leaders are up in arms against the City Council, when Westminster is normally the West End's greatest champion.

If a utility company was imposing these charges while undertaking West End streetworks, the City Council would be livid. Surely there is some way of reaching a compromise? Could people working in the West End not be given parking permits for parts of the City of Westminster? Has the City Council mislaid the carrot that normally goes with its stick? I hope that Westminster soon recovers the negotiating skill that has always been its hallmark.
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Some stories speak for themselves

At Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron just referred to the former tax arrangements of someone hired to advise Labour on its next General Election campaign. I had missed that story, so I just looked it up. Here it is. There is no need for me to say anything. It speaks for itself. This looks like another mess that the Labour Party is choosing to get itself into. Not my problem!