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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Is Mudar Zahran right?

Mudar Zahran is a (Muslim) Palestinian writer from Jordan (most of Jordan's population is Palestinian) who lives in the UK as a refugee (a refugee from Jordan, that is - http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/jordan/report-2011). Having recently heard Mr Zahran speak and take questions, I am fascinated by what he has to say about Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians. Be he right or be he wrong, I think that he deserves a hearing.

Here is a video of a TV interview: http://youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DoR9CJk1FIuQ&v=oR9CJk1FIuQ&gl=US; here is a piece from the Jerusalem Post (yes, a Palestinian writing for an Israeli newspaper - get over it): http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=257541; and http://www.meforum.org/3121/jordan-is-palestinian is an article from Middle East Quarterly that deserves to be read in full (and no, I'm not here supporting the call for Western intervention in Jordan that Mr Zahran makes in this piece).

Of course, everyone reading this knows that Jordan, like Israel and Pakistan, is a new country that was created out of the ruins of the British Empire - in 1946, in Jordan's case. Jordan's royal family, the Hashemites, were imported and installed by the British in 1921, in the newly created Emirate of Transjordan, carved by the British out of Mandate Palestine. Jordan's native Bedouins (East Bank Jordanians) are today heavily outnumbered in Jordan by Palestinians (that is, Arabs who hail not from Jordan, but from Gaza, the West Bank and the territory that is now Israel) - the world's largest single Palestinian population lives in Jordan, hence the importance politically of Jordan's Palestinian people.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A WMD-free Middle East?

Went this morning to a Chatham House briefing (http://www.chathamhouse.org/events/view/183213) on "Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Towards a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East". The idea of a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East was first developed by some Israeli thinkers as long ago as 1962. As was said today, there is no room for starry-eyed optimism on this topic, but discussing it (and discussing how we might achieve it) is better than not discussing it. This at a time when we have to be worried about the fate of whatever chemical weapons might be in Syria, Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions and the possible poor state (in environmental terms) of Israel's ageing Dimona nuclear reactor.

Could a possible international conference on creating a WMD-free Middle East focus separately on different types of weapon (chemical, biological and nuclear), rather than attempting to deal with WMD in the round? Could there be an Islamic edict prohibiting Muslim countries from ever using WMD, given that a past such edict appears to have been followed by France having encouraged Iran to ignore the edict and continue to develop nuclear power, for what I presume to be French economic reasons? Has the Judeo-Christian West (unfortunately) developed a doctrine under which it is morally acceptable to possess nuclear bombs as a weapon of last resort, thus creating a template for a similar doctrine in the Islamic world?

If Israel says "let's have regional peace before we have a nuclear-free zone" and Egypt says "Regional peace is not in prospect, let's adopt a nuclear-free zone first", then could that be about to change? If Egypt now has to (for the first time) take account of Egyptian public opinion, then will Egyptian public opinion now want to solve Israeli/Palestinian problems first, and create a WMD-free zone later? Could Israel even go into an international conference offering to close Dimona, given that a small but growing part of Israeli civil society cares about this issue, and given that environmental issues are increasingly salient in Israeli society? Without Dimona, how could Israel produce or renew nuclear weapons? What happens environmentally if an Iranian missile hits Dimona?

Are all the weapons that were in Iraq and Libya now accounted for? If Syria uses chemical weapons against its own people (as the other Baathist regime did in Iraq - it also used chemical weapons against Iran), what happens diplomatically? What about the remains of Algeria's nuclear programme, amid (not very serious) speculation about terrorists using those remains to build weapons? What lessons can we learn from the successful creation of other nuclear-weapon-free zones, including the one in Latin America, which (let's not forget) used to be a major conflict zone, with Argentina and Brazil having both had nuclear weapons programmes?

http://www.unidir.org/pdf/articles/pdf-art3085.pdf is a fascinating article on this, co-authored by Dr Patricia Lewis, Chatham House's Research Director for International Security. One other contribution to this debate is at: http://youtube.com/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DfrAEmhqdLFs&v=frAEmhqdLFs&gl=US

Monday, 28 May 2012

Harry's Place on marriage equality

Over at Harry's Place, a piece of mine has been reproduced as a guest post, on gay marriage: http://hurryupharry.org/2012/05/28/matthew-offord-and-same-sex-marriage/ The debate over there seems to be relatively sensible at time of writing...

Sandblast for Saharawis at Roundhouse on 6 June

I blogged in December 2011 about Morocco's appalling occupation of Western Sahara. That post has today prompted a welcome email from Sandblast, whose website explains that it is: "an arts and human rights charity working with the indigenous people from Western Sahara, the Saharawis whose identity and culture is threatened by the impact of exile and Morocco's occupation. It is our mission to empower the Saharawis to tell their own story, promote their own culture and earn a living through the arts." They're having this event at London's Roundhouse Studio Theatre on Wednesday 6 June 2012, to launch Studio-Live, a project that aims "to facilitate the flourishing of a music industry in the Saharawi refugee camps based in SW Algeria and give opportunities for young talent to express themselves through music", with ticket money from the event going towards the project.

Sarah Ludford: Boycotting Israeli culture can't be justified

I am pleased to see that Sarah Ludford, London's Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, has strongly condemned calls for the Globe Theatre to rescind its invitation to Israel's national theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice as part of a London 2012 Shakespeare festival. The festival involves thirty-seven Shakespeare productions in thirty-seven languages, including also an Arabic-language production of Richard II by a Palestinian theatre company. Theatre companies from countries with such marvellous human rights records as Zimbabwe and China are taking part, but it is only Israel that faces calls for a boycott - if nothing else, that is intellectually lazy on the boycotters' part. Yes, let's be spoon-fed by the media and only boycott a country that's involved in a conflict that we hear a lot about, while ignoring those other conflicts in which many more people are actually being killed around the world. 

As Simon Callow has said about the proposed Habima ban:
I am strongly opposed to any attempt to ban the work of any artist, especially artists with the distinguished record for challenging and fearlessly exploratory work of the Habima company, whose work we have not seen for far too long. If there is to be confrontation, it must be done through the agreed channels of discussion and debate. Let us see what Habima has to tell us about human life, before we try to silence them.
Sarah Ludford says: 
It is rarely justified to boycott arts or academic exchanges on the grounds of the policies of the home government, and certainly not in the case of Israel which has such a lively democratic debate. One could think of far stronger candidates such as China, so hypocrisy is at work here.
I too strongly oppose settlements, but my quarrel is with the Israeli government, not with artists. As a basic liberal principle, freedom of artistic expression has to be protected. Wanting to block a bold Israeli production of Merchant with its anti-semitic portrayal of Shylock is also a rich irony.
One of Habima’s goals is to promote communication between Jews and Arabs and it employs both. Culture and art play a key part in building bridges and communication between communities and it’s absurd to undermine this when peace is the long term goal.
As Sarah correctly writes in her latest email newsletter:
In 2007, our party conference rightly voted - nem con if I recall correctly - to condemn academic boycotts of Israel following the University and College Union’s proposed boycott, and the same liberal principles apply to freedom of artistic and cultural exchange. I completely agree with the Globe's response to the boycott calls: "It remains our contention, and we think a suitable one for a Shakespearean theatre, that people meeting and talking and exchanging views is preferable to isolation and silence."
I have blogged previously about how it is perfectly reasonable for someone to decide not to go and see an Israeli play or concert if they do not wish to see it, including if that is for political reasons - just as it is perfectly reasonable for someone to decide not to go and see an Iranian, French or Chinese play or concert if they do not wish to see it, including if that is for political reasons. It is also perfectly reasonable for people to stand outside a performance of a play or concert handing out leaflets to members of the audience, be those leaflets pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli or anything else. So long as neither the content of the leaflets, nor the the manner in which the leaflets are handed out, is so inflammatory as to break the law, then it is fine by me if demonstrators want to hand out leaflets outside a theatre. What is not fine by me, as a liberal who believes in freedom of expression, is if demonstrators want to disrupt a performance in such a way as to prevent the performance from going ahead in the first place. That is censorship, imposed by self-appointed activists who do not have the right to decide what other people can and cannot see at the theatre.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pentecost and Shavuot

I have always been hazy as to the precise connection between the Jewish festival of Shavuot and the Christian festival of Pentecost, which often, if not always, occur on the same day - today. I know that it is Shavuot because I read the Jewish Chronicle, having also, in 2004, arranged for Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy to visit Temple Fortune (that's a North London high street, not a Wild West frontier town) and (as is traditional at Shavuot) eat cheesecake, as part of Simon's London mayoral election campaign. Was Mr Kennedy there? I think he was, but I am not certain, as I was not there myself, being as I was on a freebie foreign trip that it would have been discourteous to say no to. And I know that today is Pentecost because the BBC was earlier broadcasting a live television programme featuring modern hymns of the sort that remind me why I like the older ones so much.

Consulting the Bible (or the BBC website, as it also known), it turns out that Pentecost (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/pentecost.shtml) began on a day on which the Christian apostles "were celebrating (the Jewish festival of Shavuot (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/holydays/shavuot.shtml)) when the Holy Spirit descended on them. It sounded like a very strong wind, and it looked like tongues of fire. The apostles then found themselves speaking in foreign languages, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
People passing by at first thought that they must be drunk, but the apostle Peter told the crowd that the apostles were full of the Holy Spirit."

So the New Testament basically tells us that a bunch of Jews was celebrating Shavuot, when down came the Holy Spirit to meet this bunch of Jews, who then became Christians and stopped celebrating Shavuot and began celebrating Pentecost instead, to commemorate the Shavuot visit of the Holy Spirit, a visit which Christians believe to have marked the birth of the Christian Church.

This is a reminder that the Christian Church was not born with Jesus, but was created by Christians in response to their interpretation of Jesus' teachings. Shavuot is the festival at which Jews commemorate what they believe to be God's giving of his teaching (the Torah) to his people at Mount Sinai. In terms of Christianity's belief that it offers a New Testament - a new covenant - to follow or supersede the covenant entered into by God and his people at Mount Sinai, it is logical that Christians would, to cut a long story short, adapt Shavuot into a new festival (Pentecost), to celebrate their new covenant, just as Shavuot celebrates the Sinai covenant.

Shavuot is itself a pentecost, as a pentecost is simply a counting of fifty days - Jews count fifty days after Pesach (Passover) before celebrating Shavuot, and Christians count fifty days after Easter before celebrating Pentecost.

I am not saying anything remotely original here. This all ought to be basic general knowledge for teenage schoolchildren. It does fascinate me, though, that, thousands of years on from the composition of the New Testament, Christians are still celebrating Pentecost, and Jews are still celebrating the much older festival of Shavuot. Of the British Jews and Christians that celebrate today, I wonder how many are aware that the major Christian festival of Pentecost has its roots in the apostles having celebrated the major Jewish festival of Shavuot? It's the sort of basic thing that both of them (Jews and Christians) should know about each other if we are all to know enough about each other to get along.

I actually have never celebrated Shavuot. I grew up going to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St Johns Wood, before stopping going at the age of eleven because I wasn't enjoying it and because I wanted to stay at home and watch television on Saturday mornings. I remember one occasion on which the children carried flowers around the synagogue, which must have been for Shavuot, but apart from that, I've never celebrated it. Entirely arbitrarily and illogically, I grew up going to synagogue on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and celebrating the festivals of Pesach and Chanukah at home. Other Jewish festivals - Purim, Shavuot, Simchat Torah, Sukkot - were, in my childhood, a closed book.

This means that, on a deeply personal level, I have no emotional connection to those other festivals, the ones that I have never celebrated (although there is a friend that I often go to for dinner during Sukkot, I should say). In particular, as a fairly formal English, German-influenced Jew, I feel no connection to the idea of donning fancy dress and going wild for Purim (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/holydays/purim_1.shtml) - I would never want to don fancy dress and go wild for anything, and such a festival therefore has, for me, nothing to do with religious devotion. A book by the Chief Rabbi makes me think about religion. The language of the King James Bible, or the architecture of St Paul's Cathedral, can remind me of what I like about religion, just as a country pub reminds me of what I like about England. This has nothing to with logic, religious orthodoxy or even common sense - it has to do with emotion, personal experience and an inchoate sense of what seems "normal" to me, based on what I did when I was a child.

I still celebrate Chanukah and Pesach at my parents' home, and I did get into the habit, around ten years ago, of fasting and going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, as the idea of spending a day contemplating what one has got right and wrong in the past year, and thinking about how one might try to do things better in the year ahead, works for me as an idea. I still do that in most years. Actually, this year, I didn't fast as I was on medication, and I was with some friends one of whom wanted to pop in (literally that) to a nearby strictly Orthodox, Lubavich service in Edgware, so we did. You didn't need to be wearing a suit, you didn't need to have booked, you just turned up, explained that you were Jewish, got a polite welcome, and stayed for as short or long a time as you wanted to - ten minutes, in my case. It was taken for granted that one might pop in and out and leave after only a short time, and this was not in any way considered rude or inappropriate. It was all in Hebrew and I wasn't really in the mood, hence my swift departure; I was really only there out of courtesy to one of my friends, who stayed longer than I did, albeit out of my sight behind a curtain, as men and women were, of course, strictly segregated there.

But is it not ironic that these strictly Orthodox Jews simply welcomed me as a Jew, without caring what sort of a Jew I might be? Whereas if I'd gone to some other synagogues that are actually 'less religious' and not strictly Orthodox, then I wonder if I might have been expected to explain where I am coming from Jewishly, in a way that would set my teeth on edge? It is not strictly Orthodox Jews who have ever made me feel uncomfortable about being a non-religious Jew called Matthew whose father is not Jewish. That is because they are secure in their faith, and their faith teaches them that I am a Jew, and that is good enough for them. It is, however, not always good enough for some other, less religious Jews who have, occasionally, left me feeling that they cannot get their head around my family background.

The only other festival that I particularly celebrate is Christmas, having grown up with my Christian grandparents and uncle arriving to visit us on Christmas Eve. We still have an utterly traditional Christmas lunch with a stuffed turkey and bread sauce, after which we watch the Queen on television. I consider this to be part of my heritage, being descended father to son from many generations of rural English Christians. I am an agnostic who was brought up Jewish, with a Jewish mother and an agnostic, non-Jewish father from an Anglican family. So, yes, I am Jewish, read the Jewish Chronicle every week, consider myself a member of the Jewish faith because I was raised Jewish and have never joined another religion.

And yes, I enjoy having enough Jewish literacy to understand an essay by an Orthodox rabbi, and yes, I grew up eating pork and still happily eat it, as I personally have no religious beliefs that tell me not to. If I'm in a pub and there's a beer from Oxfordshire, I'll drink that one, because my paternal grandmother was born in Bodicote. I like going to the Czech restaurant in West Hampstead (http://www.czechoslovak-restaurant.co.uk/) because it serves middle-European food and was once a haunt of central European Jewish refugees including my grandparents. Its entirely unkosher food reminds me of the German food cooked by my German Jewish grandmother. My only moral dilemma about eating the boiled knuckle of pork is that it is arguably too fatty for a man of my increasingly advanced years. And yet I can also whip up an accurate, sourced briefing for anyone in public life who needs to know what Orthodox Jews believe about kosher food, faith schools and who-is-a-Jew, and this, for me, is not paradoxical.

I once went to the Czech restaurant at Christmastime with my grandfather and other elderly Jewish relatives who were in seasonal pursuit of carp and goose, those being traditional Christmas foods in the central European countries in which these people had all been born. One of them was a convinced atheist, at whose funeral (nay, cremation, which Orthodox Jews don't do) was played a piece of Jewish religious music by Ernest Bloch, with the son of the deceased saying that yes, his father had been an atheist, but he'd also been proud to be a Jew, with the music being played so that any religious Jews present could spend a few minutes thinking about their Judaism, at what was otherwise a non-religious service. By the way, my candidate to be the UK's next Chief Rabbi is Michael Friedländer (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Friedl%C3%A4nder), who was a cousin of my great grandfather's. Michael Friedländer has, admittedly, sadly been dead since 1910, but I see no other reason to disqualify him from the post.

This all came up last year when Ed Miliband (who is Jewish, and was born to two Jewish parents, and has never converted to any other religion) married his non-Jewish partner in a non-religious ceremony. Reportedly, Mr Miliband chose to smash a glass as part of the ceremony - smashing a glass being a customary part of a religious Jewish wedding. On at least one blog, comments were posted suggesting that it was ridiculous and pointless for Mr Miliband to have enacted a Jewish custom at a non-Jewish wedding. These people did not understand that a non-religious person like Mr Miliband could feel an emotional, familial connection to a Jewish religious custom. If I ever get married, I will presumably have a non-religious wedding, and I can definitely imagine inviting an Orthodox Jewish friend to recite a Jewish prayer in Hebrew at the reception, to recognise that I am Jewish, as being Jewish is part of who I am, even if I might be marrying someone who is not Jewish. I could say that this is because identity is complicated, but, actually, it's the other way round: identity is very simple, for those of us who are interested in who our different ancestors were. I do not find my identity complicated at all.

Jonathan Freedland wrote well on this in Friday's Jewish Chronicle: http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/68050/isaac-jacob-moses-%E2%80%94-and-ed

Friday, 25 May 2012

Operation Anthropoid at the Wiener Library

A quick "thank you" to the Wiener Library (http://www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/default.aspx) for last night's private view of its temporary exhibition (http://www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/educationandoutreach/exhibition.aspx) on "Operation Anthropoid: Britain, Heydrich and the Holocaust", with last night's event including a very interesting talk by Richard Evans (http://www.richardjevans.com/). Operation Anthropoid was the code name for the assassination in 1942 of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, carried out by two Czechoslovak emigres serving in the British Special Operations Executive. An interesting, enjoyable event and my first visit to the Wiener Library, offering a reminder of how important its work is (http://m.ft.com/cms/s/2/f3380156-7b6f-11e0-ae56-00144feabdc0.html).

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Matthew Offord and same-sex marriage

Concerned as I always am for the health of the local brewing industry (a major employer that contributes much in taxation), I paid another of my occasional visits to a public house on Saturday. These places (known for short as 'pubs') are amazing, serving as they do whole pints of beer and sometimes also food. I might start going more often.

Anyway, I was in a great pub on Saturday called the Gate, on Barnet's genuinely pretty rural fringe, and I was with my friend and one-time election agent, a former Barnet councillor who is now under cover on a witness protection programme, having left local politics and moved to a safe house where the local Lib Dems cannot find him. He asked me if I had seen what Matthew Offord had said to a Labour blogger - Matthew Offord being the Conservative MP for Hendon, against whom I stood as a Liberal Democrat at the last General Election.

The conversation moved on before my friend could tell me what Mr Offord has gone and said now, so I just decided to have a quick look on Google. Up comes a load of stuff about gay marriage, of which more in a moment. More immediately, it turns out that Mr Offord has written with some rudeness in reply to Adam Langleblen, a Labour blogger of my acquaintance: http://adamlangleben.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/how-my-mp-talks-to-constituents-disgusting/.

I am normally willing to defend Mr Offord from the highly personal attacks to which he is sometimes subjected, as I (seriously) don't like personal attacks (one Barnet blogger recently referred disparagingly to a local Tory politician as being "tubby" - because, yes, let's laugh at fat people for being fat, and then when that gets boring we can move on to laughing at alcoholics and people affected by depression), but really - what a stupid email for Mr Offord to have written.

Actually, I just read it again. As a spirited response to an email from a professional political operative (which Adam Langleblen is, and I mean that as a compliment), it is perhaps not too bad, especially as Mr Langleblen had himself surely been using this correspondence to score political points - just as I did when, as a Parliamentary candidate, I publicly emailed Boris Johnson about some transport issues.

But Mr Offord should not have risen to the bait and ought not to have been 'rude'. He could have simply ignored Mr Langleblen as being a non-constituent, or he could have dismissed his points with icy disdain and still have been polite. Instead, he rose to the bait and looks the poorer for it, having given his opponents the opportunity to now pillory him for rudeness towards a constituent who is (a) not actually a constituent and (b) himself a politician, not some innocent, offended member of the general public. By the way, last time I 'defended' Matthew Offord, this happened http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/08/tory-imitation-sincerely-flatters-my.html?m=1, so can I say to Hendon Conservatives: "Please don't do that again this time."

Adam Langleblen's blog also alerted me to a Facebook posting by a Hendon constituent called Nick Lansley; I assume (I hope correctly) that this is the same Nick Lansley who asked me about my views on gay adoption during the General Election campaign (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2010/05/my-party-agenda-on-gay-rights.html?m=1). Mr Lansley reports that his partner, Bernard, wrote to Mr Offord, his local MP, about the issue of same-sex marriage. The Facebook posting (https://www.facebook.com/nicholas.lansley/posts/10150793227836174) gives us Mr Offord's reply, in which Mr Offord explains: "My own position is that I will not be voting for legislation that extends marriage for same-sex couples."

Mr Offord is obviously entitled to his opinion, although I have to say that I strongly disagree with him. At the moment, men and women are entitled to marry each other in civil (secular) weddings in register offices and other non-religious places. This has been the case for ages, and my own parents did it in 1965. In fact my maternal grandparents did it in 1939. It has nothing to do with religion; it is for people who want to be married in the eyes of the law - that is civil law, the secular, legal rules of this country - without bringing religion into it.

This is a Christian country with a Christian history and a Christian-infused culture, and I respect that (being as I am an opponent of disestablishing the Church of England), but many of us are frankly not religious at all, and we (millions of us) therefore don't feel the need to have a religious wedding. Incidentally, the supposedly Christian institution of marriage obviously existed before Christianity itself even existed - think about it. Christianity has its roots in Judaism, which had been marrying people for ages before the birth of Christianity. In the New Testament, the Christian story itself includes many Jewish, pre-Christian people who are married - major players in the creation of Christianity, married under Jewish (Biblical) law, before there was any such thing as Christianity. And in England, did the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons (who worshipped gods including Woden and Thor, from which we get the words 'Wednesday' and 'Thursday') not have marriage as an institution?

In other words, Christians do own Christian marriage - but they do not own all other marriage. They get to decide what constitutes a Christian marriage, but they do not get to decide what constitutes a Jewish marriage, a Hindu marriage, a Muslim marriage, a secular (civil) marriage, a Sikh marriage. We need to start using a hyphen to create new words. Marriage is one thing and Christian-marriage is another. Civil-marriage is another, and Orthodox-Jewish-marriage is another. These things are similar to each other, but they are not the same thing as each other.

By way of analogy: because my Mum is Jewish, I fit the Orthodox Jewish definition of who-is-a-Jew in religious terms. I could therefore get married in an Orthodox synagogue, if I was marrying a woman who was also Jewish in the eyes of the synagogue concerned. If, however, I wanted to marry any other woman, then I could not marry her in that same Orthodox synagogue. Assuming I then went and married her in a register office, then I would have had a civil-marriage, but not an Orthodox-Jewish-marriage - and Orthodox Jews would recognise that I was now married according to "the law of the state", despite my not being married in religious terms.

The idea that "the law of the state is the law" goes back many, many centuries in Jewish terms. It was the only way that a religious community could work out how to live in countries in which most people lived outside the faith. If I was an Orthodox Jew, I would believe that my faith forbids me to eat pork, but I would accept that eating pork is not illegal under English law - it would simply not matter to me that it is legal to eat pork and that other people choose to eat it, as I would choose not to eat it. So, if I was an Orthodox Jew, I would believe that my faith forbids me to marry anyone other than a Jewish woman, but I would accept that marrying other people (of either gender) is not illegal under English law (once the law has changed to allow same-sex marriage), and that would have nothing to do with my definition of Orthodox-Jewish-marriage.

It may be true that most English people still describe themselves as being Church of England. But if it is also perhaps true that only ten percent of British people go to church most weeks, then it is not meant disrespectfully if I say that Christians are, in a sense, a minority in our secular, agnostic country. Any minority needs to accommodate its rights within the context of the majority among whom it lives. The Government is proposing no change to Christian-marriage, but only to civil-marriage.

My question to Christians is: do you accept that my parents are married? Given that my agnostic father (whose parents were Christians) married my Jewish mother in a civil ceremony at an English register office in 1965, do you accept that they are married? They were obviously not married "before God" in any Christian (or Jewish) sense, but do you accept that they are married according to the laws of this country? If you do, then you are allowing for the possibility of civil marriage (not 'civil partnership', but actual civil marriage) - you are allowing for the possibility of marriages that you recognise as being lawful, but which are not marriages in any Christian sense - marriages that are nothing to do with your church. If you can allow that for heterosexual couples, then why not for same-sex couples? And if you cannot allow it for heterosexual couples, and if you therefore do not accept that my parents are married, then you presumably wish to abolish all civil marriage, including for heterosexuals? So all those men and women getting married at the town hall, a register office, a country hotel with a licence to perform weddings - no, that's now to be forbidden, as it's church weddings or nothing. That is the logical extension of any argument that civil weddings don't count.

Nobody is seeking to alter the Christian definition of who can marry in church, who is married before God, who is and isn't a different type of Christian - all of that will still be decided by the different Christian denominations. If Christians believe that homosexuality is sinful, then that is no concern of mine; they can go on believing that homosexuality is sinful and can go on not-marrying same-sex couples in their churches. Just as Orthodox Jews can go on believing that nobody apart from Jews of opposite genders is allowed to get married in their synagogues. Just as Roman Catholics can go on believing that only men can be priests. Just as many Muslims believe that Muslims should not drink alcohol, and Hindus believe that Hindus should not eat beef.

So long as nobody is breaking the laws of this country (including our laws against incitement to hatred), then different faith groups can believe what they will about what their members are entitled to do, and about who is allowed to get married under the auspices of that faith and on that faith's religious premises. That is the business of each faith group. If Liberal and Reform rabbis wish to conduct commitment ceremonies for same-sex married couples after the law has changed, then that is up to them, and it has nothing to do with me, as I am not a member of Reform or Liberal Judaism - it is simply none of my business. It is a matter to be determined by each religious movement itself, be that movement Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or anything else. I don't care if some Anglican ministers do or do not choose to conduct such ceremonies, as I am not an Anglican - the Church of England can decide this for itself and its members.

I and millions of not-religious British people like me do not think that homosexuality is sinful, whatever may be said in the Bible, as we do not lead our lives in accordance with Biblical teachings. We respect the many British people who do lead their lives in accordance with Biblical teaching, but we do not do it ourselves. We think that it is a normal part of life for many people to be gay, and we do not think that this is in any way a bad thing. We see marriage as being first and foremost about two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together - it's not first and foremost about having children, as many people get married when they are basically too old to have children, and not all married couples even want to have children. We don't see marriage as being about religion, except for those people who choose to be religious, who we respect entirely.

We therefore believe that same-sex couples should have an equal right to get married in a civil ceremony in a register office, etc. This has nothing to do with the religious marriage ceremonies of the different faith groups, and nothing to do with Christians' definition of what constitutes a Christian marriage (a category that already excludes my parents' marriage, Jewish marriages, Hindu marriages, etc). So we support what the Government calls its "proposals to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage". If you look at the Government's consultation on how these proposals are to be implemented (http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/equal-civil-marriage/), you will see that the Government is explicitly proposing "no changes to religious marriages".

So this is what we believe. Opinion polls apparently suggest that we represent majority opinion on this. We might, of course, be wrong, and others (including Matthew Offord) are obviously entitled to disagree with us, but this is what we think. Just as Christians are entitled to define Christian-marriage and Jews are entitled to define Jewish-marriage, so, thank you very much, civil society is entitled to define civil-marriage. And most of civil society wants gay people to enjoy the same right to civil-marriage as is enjoyed by myself and all other straight people, so the Government is proposing to change the law, and I support this.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

"No" to faith/ethnic community politics in Barnet

Over at my JC blog (http://www.thejc.com/blogs/matthewharris/pro-palestinian-tory-and-local-jewish-community), I have had a moan about a Barnet blogger who has suggested that Barnet's Jewish and Greek communities are "represented" on the council by those councillors who happen to be Jewish or Greek, while other communities (including, apparently, the Irish Catholic community) are (she says) not represented at all, as there are (apparently) no councillors who are members of the communities concerned. Why can a Jewish councillor not represent someone who is Irish, or vice versa? We elect councillors as individuals to represent a whole ward, not as representatives of this or that community. Then she says that a Conservative candidate in a local by-election is likely to have views on foreign policy that might alienate Jewish and Greek voters (the candidate concerned having been involved in Conservative Muslim Forum). What has foreign policy got to do with the council? Who cares what this Conservative candidate does or does not think about Israel or Cyprus? What has that got to do with emptying the bins and setting Council Tax? So, that's me, picking a fight online with a blogger who calls herself "Mrs Angry" - what could possibly go wrong?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Clinton and "Economy, stupid"

I simultaneously yawn, grimace and growl upon reading a BBC News story today that says that "the first President Bush (lost) the 1992 presidential race to Bill Clinton, who ran on the slogan: 'It's the Economy Stupid'". Of course, Clinton ran on no such slogan, having as he did a strange disinclination towards the idea of addressing the electors as "stupid". What actually happened, of course, is that Clinton's campaign staff had, in their War Room, which was obviously not a public place, a big sign that did indeed say: "It's the economy, stupid", the ironically-expressed idea being that if anyone on the campaign team needed to ask what the Clinton's main campaign issue was, then, hey - it's the economy, stupid. A moment's thought tells us that "It's the economy, stupid" is an unlikely slogan for an election campaign. My point being that if we all trot out these vapid historical cliches and quotations without thinking about what they mean and without using them accurately, then the results can be somewhat enervating.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Palestinian hunger strike to end?

Pleased to see on the website of the Palestinian news agency Ma'an that there appears to be a deal in sight to end the hunger strike of some Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails (http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=485505). I was interested to read this short, thoughtful piece about administrative detention in Israel and the UK (http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/analysis/67457/israel-uses-detention-without-trial-same-way-all-other-democracies) - worth five minutes if you are interested in this issue. I did not previously know that the Israelis have applied such detention not only to Palestinian terror suspects, but also to "extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank suspected of trying to organise anti-Arab terrorism". That is an interesting thought. We also have to address the disturbing fact that children are being held in "degrading and disgraceful" conditions. What kind of country would allow such a thing? This one would. The UK. The children in question are being held here, at Heathrow Airport, today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-18055890. Perhaps we should all stop buying British produce until this has been sorted out? Forgive my heavy attempt at irony. I don't really mean it. I write here in a personal capacity.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The madness of coffee in Maida Vale

Arriving commendably early at Maida Vale Tube station to meet a friend, I decided to go for coffee first. Popping into an independent coffee shop of the fast-disappearing sort that is much mourned by coffee's commentariat, I asked the counter-person whether the place had a loo. She looked at me as if I was mad. A lavatory, I further ventured, but my use of such complicated vocabulary only served to confuse matters even further. When, at school, one of us boys used to ask a particular teacher if he (the boy, not the teacher) could go to the toilet, the teacher used to ask if the boy in question was a woman. It was, quite seriously, drummed into us that it is not correct English usage to refer to a man going to the toilet. While some parents had to pay good money for their sons to be taught such nonsense, I was taught it for free, at a state comprehensive school, but taught it I nonetheless was.

One of my great pleasures in life is, therefore, to go out and ask for the whereabouts of the lavatory, the loo or the Gents, in the knowledge that the person that I am talking to will often not understand what I am talking about. I do this because it amuses me when I can then feel mildly indignant at having been served in England by someone who does not know what the word 'lavatory' means. Anyway, as I had got nowhere in Maida Vale with a query about the loo or the lavatory, I decided to skip a query about the Gents and simply ask if there might be a toilet, to which query I received a response in the affirmative. I could not then resist politely asking the counter-person whether she had really never heard the words 'loo' or 'lavatory' before; no, she said triumphantly, I am from Italy. I did not know that there was anything peculiar to the condition of being from Italy that would prevent a person from having heard the words 'loo' or 'lavatory' before.

As a guilt-ridden liberal, I could not, of course, simply go to this coffee shop's lavatory without first ordering something, for fear of creating the impression that I am the sort of cad who uses a place's loo without also buying something. So I glanced down at the menu and saw the word 'macchiato', with the option of having one that was either single or double, which prompted the following dialogue:

ME: A skinny macchiato, please.

HER: Latte.

ME: No, macchiato, please.

HER: Double or espresso?

ME: A single macchiato, please.

HER: It is very small.

ME: It's there on the menu, Single Macchiato, as one of the options written there, could I please have that?

HER: A Double Espresso? Or a latte?

ME: This is the craziest service ever.

At which point I left, and I promise that I was very polite and did not raise my voice. Other customers won't have noticed, and the counter-person will have been unfazed by an encounter with yet another Englishman who is so silly as to first ask for the lavatory and then attempt to order something that was, you know, there, in front of us, on a menu that was so permanent-seeming as to have actually been laminated, so it was not as if I was inventing the idea of a single macchiato, albeit with the added complexity of my having requested a skinny one. I knew something like this would happen if Mr Heath took us into the Common Market.

Having transferred my patronage to a branch of Starbucks across the road, I ordered a skinny flat white. The gentleman asked me my name, as Starbucks is currently engaged in a marketing campaign that involves writing customers' names on the paper cups in which the coffee is served. Day one of this campaign involved an exercise in which, if one revealed one's name, one was given a free cup of coffee. As we are now on what might well be day ninety-seven, the free coffee has gone out of the window, so this serves no discernible purpose other than to swell the profits of whichever company manufactures the felt-tipped pens that are used to write the names on the cups, but I co-operated sufficiently to tell the gentleman my name, only for him to then write it on a paper cup, when I didn't want a paper cup, as I had requested my coffee to drink 'in', on the premises, and so was expecting to be furnished with a mug or cup made of some material more permanent-seeming than paper.

This was sorted out to my great satisfaction, and I drank my coffee and left without further incident, only to then return after a few minutes with the friend that I had all along been due to meet at the station. Ha ha, I said, I'm back, with that tone of genial hilarity that is expected of one who leaves a branch of Starbucks and returns mere moments later. Once we had all finished laughing, I ordered another skinny flat white. I had assumed that we all now understood that drinks 'in' were not to be served in paper cups, but I saw that a member of Starbucks' staff had dispensed my coffee into precisely such a disposable receptacle.

I asked her if I could please have it in a cup, so she got an empty paper cup and placed it on the counter next to the paper cup that had my coffee in it. What I was expected to do with these two paper cups, beyond requesting a third cup and a coin and performing a Find The Lady routine, I am not entirely certain. No, no, I said, I'm drinking it in, please, so I don't need a paper cup. Ah, she said, removing my coffee as if it was Geoffrey Palmer's plate of sausages, and going off to serve not one other customer, but several. With the fixed grin that I use to ward off trouble assuming Des O'Connor proportions, I uttered an audible "excuse me". It eventually transpired that she was not simply pouring my coffee from a paper cup into one made of china or whatever material is used, but was instead making me another one from scratch, which is nothing if not well-intentioned, I suppose.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Ivan Massow, it's called "consultation" on gay marriage

Did I know that Ivan Massow had returned to the Conservative Party? I knew that Mr Massow had left the Tories and joined Labour (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/862683.stm), but did I know that life's revolving door had returned him to the Tory fold? Actually, yes, I think I did and it rings a vague bell (http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2004/may/06/london.london1?cat=politics&type=article - this says that he re-joined in 2004 "with the lure of possibly becoming a Tory MP at the next election", which he didn't, and this (http://m.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/sep/02/fall-and-rise-ivan-massow?cat=money&type=article) is perhaps the latest update).

In an article in the Standard (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/comment/comment/ivan-massow-david-cameron-has-betrayed-gays-to-appease-the-right-7737178.html), Mr Massow writes, on gay marriage, that Tory sources "assured me it'll happen, it's still in consultation, on the agenda. Yeah, yeah, we've heard this bluster before...We don't need consultation, we need action." The piece (which makes no mention of the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, or Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem Home Office Minister who is actively responsible for this issue) is headlined "Ivan Massow: David Cameron has betrayed gays to appease the Right".

I agree with Mr Massow on the need for marriage equality. There can be times when "consultation" is a euphemism for eternal inertia. This is decidedly not one of those times. Does Mr Massow not know that there actually is a formal public consultation going on right now? It has been fairly publicised by the BBC and others. It's here: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/about-us/consultations/equal-civil-marriage/. It says it ends in June. There's an online form to fill in, to register one's views. I shall fill it in; I hope that Ivan Massow will do likewise.

Would any government have announced, in a Queen's Speech in May, legislation on an issue on which the consultation period does not end until June? I doubt it. Let's wait and see what happens post-consultation before we all start shouting "betrayal".

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Prime Minister and "LOL"

The BBC tells me that David Cameron was once in the habit of signing text messages to Rebekah Brooks "LOL". What, THE David Cameron? The Prime Minister? Not some other David Cameron - Mr Cameron, the Prime Minister, right? And this mere weeks after a Tory MP said on television that one corporate lobbyist should not be taken seriously as "he is a PR man who uses emoticons". What does that make the Prime Minister - "a PR man who uses text speak"? What would Nancy Mitford have said about this latest development? What makes it better (or worse) is that, says, the BBC, Mr Cameron stopped using "LOL" after discovering that it means "laugh out loud" and not "lots of love"; I would love to have witnessed the conversation (with whom, and about what?) in which he made this discovery. Again, does anyone please have a telephone number for Nancy Mitford? If the Prime Minister wanted to prove that he is not an out-of-touch elitist, then he has, rather unfortunately, succeeded.

I think also of Hazel Blears waving that cheque with which she voluntarily repaid some sums that she had contentiously received from the Exchequer in expenses. Some critics contended that, in demonstrating her apparent ability to so effortlessly write a cheque for several thousand pounds, Ms Blears was misjudging the mood of the moment during the expenses scandal, with her cheque thus becoming an emblem of the times. Similarly emblematic, and with an equal lack of awareness of its significance on the protagonists' part, is the casual way in which Lord Rothermere and other news magnates talk about having texted the party leaders. Most of us only give our number to, and receive texts from, people that we know pretty well, although I accept that people have 'work mobiles' on which they receive messages from work-related contacts. But it fascinates me that Lord Rothermere did not think it remarkable that he was able to text his congratulations to two of the party leaders after the first of the 2010 TV leaders' debates.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Cable: close the Brussels red tape factory

As a Liberal Democrat, I was delighted to read this piece in Tuesday's Telegraph by Business Secretary Vince Cable: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9250947/Vince-Cable-the-tide-is-turning-against-EU-bureaucracy.html Great liberal sense, not widely discussed in the media because it is not a gaffe, not about personalities and not about perceived splits in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition. I became politically active because I wanted Lib Dems to enter national government and do the sort of things that Vince Cable talks about in this article. For me, that is primarily what politics is all about: the party governing the country so as to improve people's lives. It is possible, colleagues, that I care even more about that than I care about who controls the local council in places in which I do not live...Also in the Telegraph (which I must say that I got free when I bought a magazine at WH Smith, before I am accused of having become a Telegraph reader), a really interesting piece (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9250321/The-final-solution-Dont-believe-the-hype-about-the-housing-benefit-cap.html) in which Andrew Gilligan DOES let the facts get in the way of a good story - worth a look.

Fantastic letter in today's Times

"Sir, A low turnout is the sign of a democracy in good health. The person who decides not to vote - for whatever reason - is acknowledging that he or she is not qualified to express an opinion, or is ambivalent. That is entirely responsible and is to be encouraged, not criticised. It leaves the election to be determined by those who are much more likely to have weighed the issues and reached a reasoned conclusion. Matthew McCloy, Swerford, Oxon."

This letter, which might or might not have been intended (at least in part) ironically, says what a naughty part of me sometimes cannot help thinking. If someone is so ill-informed about the issues as to think that voting does not matter, then why should I want that person to vote? If such a person has no idea what the different parties' policies are, has no idea who the candidates are and has no understanding of what a councillor, mayor, etc, actually does, then how is democracy served by that person voting?

This is, of course, not a serious argument. A healthy democracy is presumably one in which more people vote, as any person is, obviously, capable of reaching a decision about politics. Research shows that those who do not vote are disproportionately poor, disproportionately lacking in formal qualifications and disproportionately lacking in English language skills - it is an issue of social exclusion. Also, there is sadly no great mass of non-voters who abstain because they have reached a sophisticated decision to reject the current political system, or because they have decided that the main parties are all too similar, etc. The people who most often don't vote are the same people who don't read newspapers, don't listen to public health advice and don't do all manner of other things that people like me would like them to do.

The one time a higher turnout was genuinely problematic for me was in London's 2010 local council elections. They were held on the same day as the General Election. The General Election had a much higher turnout than local elections ever do, so far more people voted in the local elections than had voted in London's previous local council elections, in 2006.

In 2006, the only voters in the local elections were that minority of voters who read the local paper, know who their councillors are, etc. Such voters knew, for example, that Fred Blogs was a great local councillor despite being from the wrong party, and so put aside their normal party preferences to re-elect Fred as their local councillor in 2006.

In 2010, thousands of voters (twice the usual number) arrived at the polling station to vote at the General Election, and - to their great surprise - were handed a mysterious second ballot paper and told that it was for the local council elections. Never having heard of Fred or any of the other candidates, they automatically voted in the local election for whichever party they always vote for at a General Election, and so Fred lost his seat on the council.

This happened across London to councillors of all parties; when the same seats are up for election again in 2014 and it does not this time coincide with a General Election, Fred will win his seat back on councils across London. There is something faintly daft, and more than faintly depressing, about a situation in which a higher turnout led not to a higher level of informed participation, but to a distortion of the 2010 results in comparison to the 2006 results. Should General Election voters only have been handed a local elections ballot paper if they had specifically asked for one? I guess not, realistically. But it's a tempting thought.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Return of the Greek Barbarians

Greek neo-Nazis' electoral breakthrough (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/greece/9250142/Greek-ultra-nationalists-celebrate-parliamentary-first.html) is worrying for all sorts of reasons (http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=268884). The Far Right actually joined the Greek Government last year (http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/58265/fears-over-antisemitism-new-greek-coalition-government), with these new Golden Dawn people being not so much the Far Right as the Even Further Right. Without exaggerating the number of people who actually voted for Golden Dawn and the others, it is profoundly depressing to see fascists elected in a country that has Greece's modern history (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/11/the_ghost_of_the_colonels.html).

This makes me think of a particular poem by the Greek poet CP Cavafy (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_P._Cavafy). Eighteen years ago, I was the assistant director on a production of When the Barbarians Came (https://samuelfrench-london.co.uk/books/when-barbarians-came) by Don Taylor (http://m.guardian.co.uk/media/2003/nov/20/broadcasting.artsobituaries?cat=media&type=article). I liked Don, not least because he allowed me to talk to him about his work with David Mercer (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/476343/index.html) and Sydney Newman (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/522017/index.html). Not having then read Don's book Days of Vision, I assumed that Don shared my reverence of Newman - he didn't, and indeed considered himself to have been blacklisted by Newman (http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=461). In 1963, Newman had asked Don to be the first producer of a new time-travel adventure series for Saturday nights...Don had turned him down, and I asked him about it. "Sydney said that I could do stories about whatever interested me, like the French Revolution," said Don. "But if I want to do a story about the French Revolution, I'll do a story about the French Revolution - there's no need to have a man there in a time capsule, for me to do a story about the French Revolution." Fair enough.

Don always made clear that When the Barbarians Came was linked in his mind to Cavafy's poem Waiting for the Barbarians, and I find myself thinking of that poem today, in light of Golden Dawn's arrival in the Greek Parliament:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.


Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What's the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.


Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
      He's even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.


Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.


Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.


Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.


Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

David Davis and hypocrisy

David Davis tells The Observer: "I think if you ask the man on the street what his priorities are, House of Lords reform and gay marriage would not be among them. It would be jobs, cutting taxes, prosperity, growth. It is the economy, stupid." This from a man who, in the middle of an economic crisis, resigned from the Shadow Cabinet to promote his (laudable) opposition to the over-lengthy detention without trial of suspected terrorists - an issue about which his "man on the street" surely cares as much (or as little) as he cares about Lords reform and gay marriage? And if Tories like Mr Davis consider gay marriage and Lords reform to be unimportant, then why are they wasting so much energy opposing them? Nothing is more tired or more tiresome than the argument that any issue apart from the economy is a waste of time. It is not true, and if it was true, it would apply as much to some Tories' obsession with Europe as it does to gay marriage and Lords reform. And where does Mr Davis get off with tax cuts? Nobody likes paying higher taxes. Some taxes are sometimes too high. Some tax cuts sometimes boost economic growth, among other advantages. But surely Mr Davis' "man on the street" cares more about the need to adequately fund his local schools, police and hospitals than he does about the need to cut his taxes? Does Mr Davis think that Labour gained seats at the local elections because the "man on the street" is crying out for tax cuts?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Brian's comments on gay marriage

I assisted Brian Paddick's campaign for selection as the Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate for 2012. I am very proud of how well he did in the actual mayoral election campaign, as I saw him speak to one audience that left the meeting feeling more positive about the Lib Dems than they did at the start, which is a key test for any candidate. I was moved by his references to his husband and to gay marriage in his concession speech last night. I do not see how I would have the right to deny Brian and his partner the opportunity and the right to get married and to call it marriage. My own parents had a civil wedding, ie they got married in a registry office, and that was in 1965. Why should gay men and women not be able to do the same thing? Why should their civil marriages not be allowed to be called civil marriages - why should they be required to call them "civil partnerships"? As for the religious element, what business is it of mine (as an agnostic) if a vicar, rabbi, etc, chooses to officiate at a gay wedding ceremony? Nobody is obliging any particular vicar, rabbi, etc, to do such a thing if s/he doesn't want to. Some religious conservatives think that, among Christians and Jews, support for gay marriage is a fringe phenomenon; this piece (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17796511) suggests that such conservatives should think again, regarding Christian views on this. In my own Jewish community, it is true (in institutional terms) that Orthodox Judaism does not recognise non-Orthodox Judaism as being a normative expression of Judaism. In secular terms, however, Reform and Liberal Judaism are considered to be well within the mainstream of the Anglo-Jewish community. And both Reform (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/64775/reform-backs-gay-marriage) and Liberal Judaism (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/49807/liberals-celebrate-a-same-sex-wedding) support marriage equality, while this (http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/57301/why-gay-sex-not-immoral) is an interesting piece by one Masorti rabbi. Even within Orthodoxy, the debate on this issue (http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/63314/the-gay-dilemma-confronts-orthodoxy) is more complicated than might have been expected.

Lib Dems and ritual slaughter

No, not last week's elections...Ritual slaughter (kosher and halal) is in the news again (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17966327). This is a policy area that is fraught with controversy and misconceptions. I assume that (like abortion and capital punishment) it is a 'free vote' issue of conscience for individual MPs, rather than a party political issue. In a speech in November 2010, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg correctly said: "...on 'shechita', the Jewish humane way of slaughtering animals for meat - I have always supported its continuance in this country, and I always will. The Liberal Democrats have never adopted any policy that threatens the right to shechita, and it is my intention that we never shall." If you are interested in the arguments surrounding a complicated issue that involves not only animal welfare but also religious freedom, then you may wish to read http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/04/food-for-thought-on-meat-labelling.html?m=1 and http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/06/lots-of-news-on-religious-slaughter.html?m=1.

Friday, 4 May 2012

I'm at the Brent and Harrow count

It's not my fault, OK? It's all very exciting. Or something.

Pre-count cogitation

It transpires that the W3 bus is the best means of getting from Alexandra Palace Station to Alexandra Palace itself. As I await said bus, I am not downcast. I am downcast by the weather, and would like to move from London, England to London, Ontario, where it is doubtless warmer and where they already have a Liberal Mayor. I am downcast by the fact that I cannot find my other mobile, which hopefully means that it is in the flat and not elsewhere. But I am not downcast by what appear to be disappointing election results. Sorry for those colleagues who have lost, but I love my party's being in government and that trumps my sadness about some bad local election results. I love politics, and therefore very much enjoy all the coverage of the election results, even when the results might be bad. Nobody's dead. Lib Dem ministers are doing the right things in government and this is a long-term game. Right, in I go!

Start the count, I'm coming in

Following my adventures on polling day (http://www.thejc.com/blogs/matthewharris/im-kosher-pub), I now await a bus (if we still have buses under this current Tory mayor), to be followed by a train, which will take me to Alexandra Palace for the North London leg of the Mayoral and Assembly Election count. The train won't actually take me into the palace itself, as my life is not actually a scene from a Harry Potter film. I shall have to walk. For sixteen minutes, says the Internet. Actually, I am now on the bus, thanks to the excellent influence of Lib Dem Transport Minister Norman Baker, whose hard work has countered the deleterious impact of London's Tory Mayor, Boris "call me Boris" Johnson, whose first name is actually Alexander and whose intimates apparently call him Al, demonstrating the extent to which his whole "Boris" routine really is an act, albeit a good enough act to have secured my second preference vote in preference to Ken Livingstone, with Brian Paddick having received my first preference.

I am now waiting at New Barnet Station for a train that is a whopping two minutes late (do First Capital Connect not know who I am? Actually they do, or at any rate did: http://matthew4hendon.blogspot.com/2009/12/first-capital-connect-progress-report.html?m=1), for which I blame Tory Transport Minister and Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers. The train has now arrived and is on the move, meaning that Norman Baker must have wrested back control from Theresa in a coalition power struggle. Indeed, so efficient is this rail network that I am already on another train going back the way I came from Hornsey, having failed to get off the first train when it stopped at Alexandra Palace. I am now here. At Alexandra Palace Station. The count thus awaits me if I walk for sixteen minutes, so that had better now claim my attention.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

He has now learnt to spell my name

His correct spelling of my surname must be progress of a sort (see below). I have spent years campaigning, privately and publicly, for a negotiated two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Such a negotiated two-state solution is not only right in itself, but also happens to be Liberal Democrat party policy. According to Mr Ali, my consistent support for this policy amounts to my "hiding behind clever little words" and is a "lie". What would be my motivation for telling such a lie - what would I get out of it? Actually, Andi, I tell the truth about what my opinions are. If I thought something else, I'd say something else. It saddens me that Andi Ali cannot accept that our political differences might arise from an honest difference of opinion.
------------------

From: Andi Ali <noreply-comment@blogger.com>
Date: Thu, 03 May 2012 14:35:19 +0000
To: <matthew.harris@hotmail.co.uk>
Subject: [Matthew Harris] New comment on Gareth Epps censors me on Tonge.

Andi Ali has left a new comment on your post "Gareth Epps censors me on Tonge":

Don't try and hide behind clever little words Harris. The Lib Dems friends of Israel have never been in favour of a Palastinian state, never will be in favour, and its said you have to lie and pretend otherwise.



Posted by Andi Ali to Matthew Harris at 3 May 2012 15:35

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Cameron's "Conservative-led" Government

In the Standard's interesting eve-of-poll interview with the Prime Minister (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/mayor/full-interview-boris-johnson-has-a-big-heart-you-dont-have-to-be-tory-to-vote-for-him-says-pm-7706811.html), Sarah Sands asks David Cameron if he could imagine a Coalition Government including the Conservatives and UKIP, to which Mr Cameron responds: "If you are clairvoyant...I don't think that is what is going to happen. When it comes to the next election, do you want a Conservative-led government, or to go backwards with Labour or waste your votes on one of these other parties, that is the key question." Not "a Conservative Government", but a "Conservative-led" one, which is what we have at the moment, with the current coalition. Is Mr Cameron preparing his pitch for a scenario in which, in 2015, the best the Conservatives can hope for is to again be the largest party in a hung Parliament, so prompting a continuation of the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition?

Stranger things have happened, especially if the economy recovers, the Coalition gets the credit and neither the Conservatives nor Labour is popular enough on its own to win an outright Commons majority. My preferred outcome for the 2015 General Election is a Liberal Democrat victory and a Lib Dem Government. In the not inconceivable absence of such an outcome, I'd be delighted by another hung Parliament and another coalition. Were that coalition to have David Cameron as its Conservative Prime Minister and Nick Clegg as its Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, I would not complain, as I like the current government more than I have liked any other British Government of my lifetime.

If I was Mr Cameron (which would come as a frightful shock to Mrs Cameron), and if I detected little public appetite for a Conservatives-only government, I would be thinking that another Conservative-led Coalition Government is among the least worst options for the Conservative Party - after all, many other conservative parties (such as Germany's Christian Democrats) long ago accepted that being the senior partner in a coalition with the liberals is, realistically, as good as it often gets. I find Mr Cameron's "Conservative-led" choice of words significant.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Socratic debate on Israel/Palestine

The comment below went into spam on this blog, and on my blackberry, it's easier to deal with it as a new comment than it is to - anyway. You'll see that this gentleman is on to me. I do, apparently, "fool nobody!!". And I came so close...I'm loading everything on to the plane in the hope of making a quick getaway. Sigh. Apparently, I last year put my name to a vote against a Palestinian state. This might mean that I am now the UK's UN Ambassador, and voted (in absentia, having forgotten that I hold the job) against Palestinian statehood at the UN (although that is unlikely, for so many reasons, including the fact that the UK did not vote against Palestinian statehood at the UN). It could also mean that I am, after all, the MP for Hendon (or a peer of the realm) and voted against it in Parliament, although this is not a matter on which Parliament has actually voted, so I guess it's not that. No, Mr Ali is referring again (and again) to September's motion on the Arab Spring at Liberal Democrat Conference. The motion (which referred to the Arab Spring as the Arab Awakening, just to avoid the danger that the general public might understand what the heck we were talking about) was very good. Very good indeed. Although it was not supposed to be about Israel/Palestine (it was about the Arab Awakenspring), it included a very good amendment about Israel/Palestine, re-stating the party's position very nicely. Lib Dem Friends of Palestine supported it, as did Lib Dem Friends of Israel. I voted for it. Sarah Ludford voted for it, after a speech in which she said that she was voting for it, but that she wished it said a bit more. The gentleman below is convinced that we voted against it, and so voted against a Palestinian state. This, apparently, demonstrates my perfidy, but, as he tells me: "You fool nobody!" Well, here is the amendment (which I voted for, not against):

"The UK, EU and international community to continue their support for the fundamental human rights of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people, and to step up efforts to promote peaceful negotiation between Israel and the freely elected representatives of the Palestinian people which will lead to a comprehensive and final peace treaty between the two sides based on the legitimate entitlements of each in international law, including their right to live in peace and security"
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From: Andi Ali <noreply-comment@blogger.com>
Date: Tue, 01 May 2012 21:37:48 +0000
To: <matthew.harris@hotmail.co.uk>
Subject: [Matthew Harris] New comment on Gareth Epps censors me on Tonge.

Andi Ali has left a new comment on your post "Gareth Epps censors me on Tonge":

Blogging that you support somthing Haris is one thing, atually supporting it is another. The Liberal Democrat friends of Israel are good at saying they support a Palastinian state, while doing everything they can to vote against it. Take Ludford for example, tells everyone she's in favour of a Palastinian state, but when the Palastinians applied for a state last year, she put her name along with other lib dem friends of israel to vote against it. You fool nobody!!



Posted by Andi Ali to Matthew Harris at 1 May 2012 22:37