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Monday, 22 December 2014

Nick Clegg's Chanukah Reception

On Thursday, I had the immense privilege of attending UK Deputy Prime Minister (and Liberal Democrat Leader) Nick Clegg's Chanukah reception at Admiralty House. It was a lovely occasion, on which Nick Clegg made a speech that touched upon some genuinely interesting themes, so here is a video - the speech begins about four minutes in, after the nice bit with the children singing, the rabbi, and the candles being lit (and the first minute or two of that first bit has less than perfect sound). 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

I love the BBC, but...

I am passionately pro-BBC (and the licence fee) and I am not a party to the cheesy cynicism of those right-wing campaigners who are convinced that the corporation is endemically anti-Israel. It isn't. Nor is it improperly pro-Israel, as alleged by some of the sillier elements on the pro-Palestinian left.

But when I see the headline "Israel launches Gaza air strike", I despair - because the story actually begins: "Israeli aircraft have bombed a site in Gaza, in the first such action since the declaration of a truce in August. The air strike was carried out on a Hamas facility in response to a rocket fired earlier from Gaza, a statement from the Israeli military said."

This is on the digital teletext on the red button on BBC TV, and as I used to actually write news stories for the teletext on the BBC World channel, I can say that I would have headlined the story "Israeli air strike follows Gaza rocket fire" and would have written:

"Israeli aircraft have bombed an alleged Hamas facility in Gaza in response to a missile reportedly fired into Israel earlier from Gaza, a statement from the Israeli military said. This is the first such exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel to be reported since the declaration of a truce in August."

My version makes it clear that the Israelis are claiming that Hamas acted and Israel reacted; the BBC's version reports that the Israelis acted and points out that it was the first such Israeli action since the truce started - without explicitly saying that it was a Hamas missile that appears to have triggered this latest chain of events, and allowing the reader to infer that Israel started this latest escalation of hostilities, when the reality is that if Hamas had not fired its missile, then none of this would have happened today and you wouldn't be reading this post now, as I would never have written it.

In terms of news, the BBC seems to think that the story is: "Why has Israel bombed a site in Gaza?"; I would argue that the story actually is: "What is Hamas hoping to gain by firing missiles at Israel again in the middle of a truce - and what will the Israeli response be?"

Some explanations for how and why various news organisations can get the Israel story wrong were offered in this very interesting piece here: http://m.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/how-the-media-makes-the-israel-story/383262/

Friday, 31 October 2014

A hopeful Lib Dem speech on Israel/Palestine

Pleased as I am to see a de-escalation of tensions in Jerusalem (and I thought that Judaism itself prohibited religious Jews from entering the Temple Mount until after the fulfillment of their prophecy that the Messiah has come?), I was also pleased to see a great speech by Lord (Monroe) Palmer in yesterday's House of Lords debate on the Middle East and North Africa. I have rarely seen a better Liberal Democrat re-statement of the pro-Israeli, pro-peace argument. You can watch the speech here and read it here; I was struck in particular by:
Another fact that is completely overlooked is the amount of aid and goods of different types that Israel pumps into Gaza, as well as the amount of aid and goods that Israel allows others to pump in...What makes me despair is the absence of reporting in the media on the support that Israel has consistently given to the people of Gaza. Some formidable forces are lobbying against Israel in the British public arena. It is perhaps the unrelenting campaigns of such formidable forces that drown out the truth about what Israel is doing to help Gaza, even during hostilities.
I would like to give some examples. On 25 August this year, in the middle of a war in which a bombardment of Hamas missiles was forcing many thousands of Israeli men, women and children to run for cover whenever an air raid siren sounded - even in the middle of such a bombardment - 111 trucks entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel carrying 2,190 tonnes of food. On that same day, three trucks entered Gaza through the same crossing from Israel, carrying 8 tonnes of humanitarian supplies. 
On 24 August, one day earlier, three Israeli taxi drivers were waiting to pick up some residents of Gaza to bring them into hospital in Israel from Gaza through the Erez crossing. And what happened? Mortar shells fired by Palestinian groups wounded the taxi drivers, with two of them being seriously hurt. Israeli soldiers had to evacuate the wounded under Palestinian fire, as Palestinian mortars continued to fall on the Israeli crossing specifically designated for the passage of Palestinians in need of medical and humanitarian assistance. These three Israeli taxi drivers, who were doing their job taking sick people to hospital, were not Jewish, but Arab citizens of Israel - Israeli Arabs being bombed by Palestinian terrorists while attempting to take Palestinians to hospital in Israel.
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer's reaction to the news that Henry Kissinger had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the world is now so satirical that it is impossible to satirise it any more. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Don't lump "Oxbridge" in with fee-paying schools

Re:- Alan Milburn's report on social mobility (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/education-28953881;) can we please not lump "Oxbridge" in with fee-paying schools? Private schools are institutions at which parents buy places for their offspring; Oxford and Cambridge aren't. I have blogged on this previously at http://m.huffpost.com/uk/entry/894432 and http://matthewfharris.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/ending-futures-market-in-education.html.

Oh, and if only 24% of MPs went to Oxbridge, then I have to say that that means that not enough of the UK's most academically able graduates are going into politics and that is a problem; I'd like to see comparable figures for other good universities and a report on how to persuade more of the brightest and the best to consider a career in politics. And I'd seriously like to know what percentage of MPs tried for Oxbridge, but didn't get in...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

My Minute of Rage for Gaza and Israel

Israel's opponents regularly proclaim a Day of Rage against Israel. I am on the Tube to work and (even allowing for possible delays on the Northern Line), I therefore don't have day today to devote to rage. I only have a minute.

So, with even The Guardian (hardly a pro-Israeli newspaper) having reported yesterday (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/19/israel-launches-air-strikes-gaza-ceasefire) that: "The temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was in jeopardy on Tuesday after rockets were fired from Gaza, triggering a swift military and political response from Israel", that clear, and simple reality (that, in the middle of a ceasefire - in the middle, indeed of actual peace talks - Hamas had started firing missiles at people living in Israel, prompting Israel to respond by firing back, as what country wouldn't) had been lost by yesterday evening (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28857012) and even further lost by this morning (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28862595).

We are now, already, back to "as hostilities resumed, both sides blamed the other", with parts of the media sounding like a parent saying to two children: "I don't care who started it. Just both stop it at once. And Israel, even if Hamas DID hit you, there was no need for you to hit him back so hard, especially as you're his big brother and you know you're stronger than him."

This idea that it doesn't matter who started a conflict and that doubtless both sides are to blame, with a lot of right and wrong on both sides, is well-intentioned but can be nonsense. I posted a piece by someone else saying Don't Take Sides a few weeks ago and an eminent Lib Dem colleague, one with great experience of conflict-resolution, gently pointed out that, sometimes, it actually is necessary to take sides in a conflict, on occasions when one side is clearly in the right and the other is clearly in the wrong. He was right. It is when people on each side genuinely seek peace from the perspective of their side that both sides can actually make peace.

There are three approaches that don't help. One is to say: "You're both right." Another is to say: "You're both wrong." A third is to say to one side: "You are completely wrong and the other is completely right and I condemn you."

Surely the better approach is to say to the two sides: "You have competing claims. You each accuse the other of perpetrating injustices, and some of those accusations are justified. It is possible that one of you has a bigger grievance than the other, and commentators disagree as to which of you that is. One side might claim that its arguments do not get a fair hearing and that the world is biased against it. The only way for you to resolve your competing claims is for you to find some way to negotiate an agreement based each side getting some of the things that matter most to it, with painful compromises from both sides."
That is not the same as refusing to take sides and the politics of "I don't care who started it - just both stop." I DO care who started it. The venting of anger about who started it is part of the process of encouraging the parties to make peace. So, returning to my Minute of Rage, why - why - did Hamas end the ceasefire by firing missiles at Israel? Given that Hamas knew what the Israeli response to be, why did they do it? Was it because they see a continuation of the war as being likely to bring them greater prizes than were available under the terms of the deal that was being agreed at the talks? Having started this new phase of the conflict by firing missiles at people living in Israel, Hamas bears responsibility for the deaths of anyone killed in the consequent Israeli response.

In firing its missiles, Hamas is aiming to kill as many people in Israel as possible; the fact that the missiles rarely hurt or kill anyone (partly because of good missile-defence and air-raid shelters) is beside the point. In firing its missiles and so inviting a defensive response from Israel, Hamas knows that it is prompting the deaths of so many Palestinian civilians, and that is an absolute tragedy - and it is a tragedy that, in my Minute of Rage, I lay at the door of Hamas.

I rage also at the fact that thousands if not millions of people living in Israel (including members of my own family) are now again hearing sirens and running for shelter. I've been receiving emails from people in Israel who cannot stray far from the house when out walking for fear of not being close to an air-raid shelter when a Hamas bomb falls. Thousands, if not millions, of people are living through this in Israel. Try sparing them a thought when you see pictures of the Palestinian people killed and wounded in Israel's response to the missiles fired by Hamas. And yes of course I call for Israel to continue to do what it can to minimise civilian casualties - Israel, unlike Hamas, is not deliberately aiming to kill civilians when it fires.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel - a great statement on Gaza

As a committee member of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI), I strongly endorse this new statement on the current situation in Israel and Gaza, on LDFI's website:
In light of the events of the past month in Israel and in Gaza, the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) believe that it is important to outline our views. It should be borne in mind that LDFI is not a Jewish organisation. It is what its title says: Liberal Democrats who are friends of the State of Israel. Our membership includes people of all faiths and of none.
LDFI does not subscribe to or uncritically support the policies of every Israeli government, particularly not one led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, whose values are quite different from that of the Liberal Democrats. We remain absolutely committed to the State of Israel and her right to live within secure borders and to supporting peace in the region. We believe that this can and will be achieved by negotiation, on the basis of an imaginative two-state solution that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis alike.
LDFI condemns Hamas as the terrorist group it is recognised to be internationally. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel in both word and deed, and its refusal to accept Israel’s statehood is an integral obstruction to peace. Attacks on Israel by means of both the terror tunnels and the unceasing, indiscriminate missile bombardment are without question intolerable and unacceptable, and have been rightly countered.
The level of casualties in Gaza and beyond is a human tragedy. Hamas’ policy of using the Gazan people as human shields to protect their arms caches around hospitals, schools, densely populated neighbourhoods must be understood and recognised in the UK and internationally. As Nick Clegg, has written, “[Hamas] has shown it is willing to sacrifice its own people for military advantage.” As such, Hamas must bear a heavy responsibility for the tragically high death toll in Gaza to date.
Following the absolute confirmation that Israel will cease all military responses as long as missile fire does not recommence, we call on the UK and international community to bring pressure to bear on Hamas to cease their missile fire indefinitely. This will give way to a period of calm which will allow pause for reflection on all sides. Further aggression and provocation from Hamas will not allow negotiations, led by Egypt, to conclude towards an enduring ceasefire.
What is clear is that any continuation of the situation of the past month will not deliver the Liberal Democrat dual aspiration of removal of the existential threat to Israel’s security and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Furthermore, we call on Israel to demonstrate continued restraint in any targeting of terrorist targets in Gaza. Civilian causalities in Gaza are not just a tragedy but also give Israel’s enemies at home and abroad both political and public relations ammunition to espouse a worrying anti-Zionist and sometimes actually anti-Semitic rhetoric which LDFI finds as deplorable a consequence as the prospect of further hostilities.
The statement has been backed by a letter in The Guardian by a number of senior Liberal Democrats:
 As Liberal Democrats, we are totally committed to the state of Israel being able to live within secure borders, and wish to see the removal of the existential threat to Israel’s security by an internationally recognised terrorist group, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
As recorded by the UN and captured by various international media sources, Hamas’s policy of using human shields to protect its arms caches in hospitals, schools and densely populated neighbourhoods must be understood as the principal factor behind the number of Gazan civilian deaths, and condemned as such. 
Hamas’s commitment to the destruction of Israel and its refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist is a huge obstacle to peace.
We hereby ask that the UK government and the international community call on Hamas to maintain the cessation of rocket fire beyond this current ceasefire. Israel has shown it is committed to a ceasefire subject to an end to the rocket fire; it is now incumbent on Hamas to do the same. This will allow the international community, led by Egypt, to broker an end to hostilities, involving the demilitarisation of Gaza plus recognition and adherence to the Quartet principles, which in turn will lead to the eventual opening of borders and a more enduring peace. 
Sir Alan Beith MP Chairman of the justice select committee and former deputy leader of Liberal Democrats
Lord Navnit Dholakia Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords
Lord Monroe Palmer Liberal Democrat, joint backbench international affairs committee,
Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP for London 1999-2014 
Cllr Barry Aspinall Leader, Brentwood borough council 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Two great Foreign Affairs articles on Israel/Gaza

The American magazine Foreign Affairs has some claim to be the world's leading foreign-policy journal and its readable, accessible style reminds me of The Economist at its best. I'm signed up to a free weekly email offering links to its best articles, and yesterday that email took me to the two (short, non-academic) pieces below. Amid the horrendous din of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian comment, argument and propaganda by which we are all currently being so painfully overwhelmed, the two pieces below are an objective breath of fresh air, and I strongly urge you to read them:

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141834/benedetta-berti/dangerous-disarmament

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141698/mark-perry/gazas-bottle-rockets?cid=nlc-foreign_affairs_this_week-080714-gazas_bottle_rockets_5-080714&sp_mid=46659115&sp_rid=bWF0dGhldy5oYXJyaXNAaG90bWFpbC5jby51awS2

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Libya and "the Middle East Crisis"

Why must the media call the current Israel/Gaza war "the Middle East crisis"? The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a huge region, of which Israel/Palestine is, what, less than 2% - and the Middle East has many crises, not just one. We did not use to call Northern Ireland "the Western Europe crisis"; can we not call the Israel/Palestine crisis precisely what it is - "the Israel/Palestine crisis"? It is indeed a crisis, and so (for example) is the situation in Libya (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28616843) - is Libya not in the Middle East too? The implication that "the Middle East" is not so much region as a problem (and a problem centring on Israel, to the exclusion of all other problems) belongs far more in a secondary school debating society than it does in the world's newsrooms.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Lib Dem line on Israel/Palestine today

In a party that is, to paraphrase Charles Kennedy, not so much a broad church as a hexagonal cathedral, it is somewhat hazardous to refer to "the party line". That notwithstanding, the Liberal Democrats do (like any other party) have such an official line on issues of the day, and below is the one on "Israel and Palestine" today. Writing here in a personal capacity, I have to say that I strongly agree with the broad thrust of large parts of this:

"Our urgent priority is to stop the bloodshed, restore the ceasefire and work towards a long-term sustainable peace. The Liberal Democrats in Government will concentrate our efforts on securing that object.

"Israel has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks launched from Gaza and targeted at innocent Israelis.

"But we will continue to urge Israel to exercise restraint and make every effort to avoid further civilian casualties. It is vital we work towards an immediate ceasefire.

"We are deeply concerned by the continuing bloodshed in Gaza. It is tragic that so many innocent civilians, including children, have been killed and injured in the ongoing violence.

"The people of Gaza and Israel have the fundamental right to live in peace and security. To this end, we urge Hamas to stop their indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel but also call on Israel and Egypt to lift the blockade of Gaza. It is not in Israel's or ordinary Palestinians' interests to see the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsen."

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Nick Clegg on Israel/Gaza

On his Call Clegg radio phone-in show on LBC today, Nick Clegg (UK Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister) took a question on Israel and Gaza from 'Stephen in Croydon'; I agree with Mr Clegg's answer, and here is the Q&A:

S:         Oh hi, I've got a question for you, an interesting one. If the world was city, Israel finds itself in one of the toughest parts of town, surrounded by countries with little value for life.  If you were the Prime Minister of England, and there was a radicalised terrorist organisation that was now running Scotland or Wales, and they were firing up to 50 rockets every month into your country, would you accept the situation, or feel you had a responsibility to protect the citizens of your country?

NC:      Of course you've got a responsibility to protect the citizens of your country.  And, equally, you have an absolute need, a long term strategic need, to secure the safety of your fellow citizens, by seeking to entrench peace.  At the end of the day, we know, we all know that violence begets violence, and that the greatest security of all that can be provided to our fellow citizens, is to seek for people to live peacefully in co-existence.  But, of course, that means that people who seek to spread terror need to be confronted and combated, and every state has a right to protect its citizens from that.  But, equally, I think it means, certainly in the case of the Middle East, that in the long run, in the long run, however difficult it is, and boy is it difficult, there is no surrogate, there's no alternative to the safety that peace brings.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The death of another young person

The tragic news that the body of a Palestinian teenager has been found near to Jerusalem is deeply saddening, following on so soon from the finding of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers. One can only begin to imagine the deep sadness of the families and friends of all four of these young people. Given that all four appear to have been murdered, I want to see the people responsible brought to justice as swiftly as possible.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Israel's critical Lib Dem friend

Very interested to see the Jewish Chronicle's coverage of a recent visit to Israel/Palestine by Laurence Brass: http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/117732/board-deputies-treasurer-shocked%E2%80%99-visit-west-bank and http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/120089/envoys-support-laurence-brass-israel-criticism-row.

Laurence is a former Liberal candidate who, like me, used to be a Vice-Chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (on whose committee I still sit, although I write here in a personal capacity) and is the Treasurer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, although this trip by Laurence to Israel/Palestine (organised by a British group called Yachad: http://yachad.org.uk/) was undertaken by Laurence in a personal capacity.

Israel's critics often say (sometimes disingenuously) : "We criticise Israel because, as friends of Israel, we wish to be candid friends and tell Israel when Israel is wrong - that is the act of a true friend." They also often say (again, sometimes disingenuously): "Why can Lib Dems who are friends of Israel not be critical friends who say something when Israel's got it wrong?"

And you could argue that this is precisely what Laurence has done, given what he says about a Palestinian schoolgirl being taken to hospital with head wounds after apparently being stoned by someone living in a nearby Israeli settlement, and what he says about a rusty car having been dumped in a Palestinian village well, in what Laurence considers to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt the villagers' clean water supply.

As a friend of Israel, am I not allowed to be as disgusted by reports of such alleged actions as I would be by reports of English football hooligans abroad allegedly smashing windows and urinating on the beach? In either instance I would need to hear the facts before rushing to judgement, but would my disgust at the possibility of such behaviour by some Israeli or English people really make me anti-Israeli or anti-English?

Yes, I know that Israel's critics often stray into language that is antisemitic (unlike Israel's enemies, who don't need to stray into such language, as they are already there). I know that Israel's actions attract a massively disproportionate amount of critical attention in relation to other, far more serious things that happen elsewhere in the Middle East and the wider world, and I know that Israeli 'settlers' are demonised and de-humanised in such a way as to suggest that THEY are the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, when that conflict actually existed long before there even WERE any settlers, meaning that they can't be the conflict's root cause, that root cause actually being the Arab world's refusal to accept the existence of the State of Israel on any terms whatsoever - I know all of this, and have written about it here many times.

I also know that, given that Israel has no lack of harsh critics, it doesn't really need additional criticism from those people who are its best friends. I understand the arguments that diaspora Jewish communal leaders (of which the Treasurer of the Board of Deputies is a prime example) can express their reservations to the Israelis in private and ought not to add grist to the mill of Israel's critics in public.

And I know - and this is very important - that Israel does arrest and prosecute those of its citizens who act in the appalling way that Laurence describes, just as such people would be arrested over here: http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.572623?v=B42055F2F0744D1EDC31FD59351A2380.

But...What if Laurence had gone to the West Bank and not criticised Israel, but praised it? What if he had said: "I applaud Israel's rigorous prosecution of those Israelis who sometimes behave badly towards Palestinians" - would the same people who have booed Laurence for criticising Israel have booed him for saying that? I don't think that they necessarily would, and if Laurence's praising Israel would not have sparked allegations that he has failed to behave impartially, then why should such allegations be sparked by his criticising Israel? The blade surely cuts both ways.

What I assume to have happened (and it is only an assumption - I have not spoken to Laurence about this) is that Laurence, who I have known and liked for years, went with Yachad on a one-day trip to the West Bank (http://yachad.org.uk/get-involved/trips/) at a time when he was in Israel (perhaps on holiday) anyway. Having seen what he saw, he said what he said, because that's Laurence, and I'm not going to say that he was definitely wrong to say it. Perhaps it wouldn't work if every Anglo-Jewish leader expressed personal, critical opinions on every detail of Israeli policy all of the time, but I wonder if the world might not end if someone like Laurence does it every now and then.

I note also that, of the distinguished Israelis who have signed a letter (doubtless orchestrated by Yachad) in the Jewish Chronicle supporting Laurence, one (Alon Liel) was the main speaker at Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's 2011 party conference fringe meeting (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/10/jeremy-browne-on-israelpalestine.html) and another (Naomi Chazan) had the same role in 2010 (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/06/liberal-voice-worth-listening-to.html).

Naomi, Alon, Yachad and perhaps even sometimes Laurence are to the left of where I often am (http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-israel-has-no-option-but-to-defend-itself-against-hamas-and-iran-10239.html), but that doesn't deter me from wanting to hear what they have to say. Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel deserves greater credit for centring its fringe meetings on pro-peace, liberal-left Israelis like Alon Liel and Naomi Chazan, and I'd love it if Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine would centre its fringe meetings on pro-peace, liberal-left Palestinians.

Jonathan Freedland wrote interestingly on such things at: http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/57850/this-israel-not-one-i-love.

(While I was completing this piece yesterday, the appalling news broke of the discovery of the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers, about whose kidnapping I had blogged previously. Obviously I condemn the brutal murder of these three young people, which I did not discuss in the piece above, as I had not known about it at the time of writing.)

Israel/Gaza/BBC: When is a response not a response?

"Israel launched more than 30 air strikes on the Gaza Strip overnight," says the BBC. "The strikes came in response to 18 rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza since Sunday night, the Israeli military said." Is it possible that what the BBC actually meant was: "According to the Israeli military, there have been 18 rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza since Sunday night. Israel launched more than 30 air strikes on the Gaza Strip overnight, in what its military called a response to the rocket attacks." If reporting on an incident and a response to that incident, would one not normally describe the incident first and the response second?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Does Hamas want to change?

Political movements change. They sometimes change profoundly. The US Democrats went from "the party of slavery" to "the party of civil rights" in the space of a hundred years. In a similar space of time, the UK's Liberals went from being a party led by a Prime Minister (HH Asquith) who took the country into the First World War, promoted imperialism and opposed votes for women to being today's progressive Liberal Democrats. South Africa's National Party, the party of apartheid, evolved into the conservative, democratic New National Party and forged an abortive alliance with the liberal Democratic Party before merging into the movement that had most opposed apartheid, the African National Congress.

So, given that organisations can change (and can change rapidly), I accept that, in theory, Hamas could change, and could evolve from its current role as the Ku Klux Klan of Palestinian politics (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/talking-of-adverts-see-this-one-about.html) into something more hopeful - into a body that could actually have something useful to contribute to the peace process, in contrast to its current commitment to the destruction of the State of Israel.

Indeed, I am regularly reading and hearing reports that this or that element within Hamas has made precisely such a change, usually swiftly followed by a declaration from the movement's leadership that there has in fact been absolutely no change and that Hamas will not allow Israel to exist within any borders whatsoever. If you read http://www.timesofisrael.com/hamas-official-denies-group-could-recognize-israel/, you'll see that a Hamas official reportedly recently even threatened to sue The Washington Post for libel after the paper had quoted him as saying that Hamas might recognise Israel.

Despite  the dispiriting experience of all these hopeful noises from Hamas having been retracted as swiftly as they were uttered, I have maintained an open mind about the possibility that even the most disgusting and dangerous of political entities could possibly change, given what history teaches me about Nazi Germany's swift transition into West Germany, Imperial Japan's equally swift evolution into democratic Japan and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's journey from starting the Yom Kippur War in a bid to destroy Israel, to making a lasting peace with Israel only a few years later.

Given my maintenance of that open mind and my concomitant willingness to listen to those friends and colleagues who tell me that Hamas is on some sort of road to peace and reasonableness, you can imagine my irritation, disappointment and disgust at reading the following (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27863465): "Palestinian officials have said they are co-operating with the search (for the three missing Israeli teenagers) - a move Hamas has condemned."

Three teenagers go missing, presumed kidnapped. Palestinian officialdom (which, to put it mildly, has no great love for Israel), extends the normal assistance that any decent human polity would offer to any other polity that was searching for three missing young people, and what does Hamas do? It does not support this assistance, it does not remain silent on this assistance, it does not even say "We hate Israel, but obviously we still want these kids to be found safe and well" - no, instead, Hamas actually condemns Palestinian assistance for the Israeli search for the missing boys.

Contrast this with the help extended by Israeli hospitals (and the people who work in them) to Syrian people wounded in that country's brutal civil war, despite Syria being a country that does not recognise Israel and which chooses to remain in a technical state of war with Israel: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/world/middleeast/despite-decades-of-enmity-israel-quietly-aids-syrian-civilians.html?referrer=&_r=0. That same article also says: "Israel's defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, said this week that Israel "cannot remain indifferent" and had been providing food and winter clothing to Syrian villages across the border fence as well as tending to some of the wounded."

For Hamas to become a body that has anything useful to contribute to the peace process and the Palestinian cause, it has to adopt that same basic humanitarian instinct.






Friday, 13 June 2014

Palestinian Ambassador on peace

A great peice here (http://www.fathomjournal.org/policy-politics/the-two-state-solution-the-way-forward/) by the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Professor Manuel Hassassian, and a UK-based Israeli academic, Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor, in which they write, re:- a two-state deal: "Israel shall recognise the State of Palestine. Palestine shall recognise the Jewish State of Israel."

It is immensely significant for a Palestinian diplomat to write words that imply Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state that will co-exist with a future Palestinian state. Immensely significant, and very welcome, as is his willingness to co-write it with an Israeli author for publication by the pro-Israeli British group BICOM.

Also refreshing is BICOM's referring to him here as "His Excellency Ambassador Manuel Hassassian", as, although the UK has upgraded the Palestinians' London delegation to full mission status, it is not (yet) an embassy and he is not (yet) an ambassador - and yet common sense surely suggests that there is nothing to be lost (and much to be gained) by extending to this de facto ambassador the same courtesy that one would extend to a full ambassador. Isn't that what you do when you are trying to make peace with someone? Such courtesy speaks well of BICOM and its current leadership.

I don't care, by the way, what good or awful things Professor Hassassian has or has not said or done in the past. I care about what he is doing now, and that's this article, which - however much I disagree with it on some of the specifics - is an attempt to float a proposal for peace. To take just one passage:

"Israel and Palestine will institute a shared curriculum on good neighbourhood, understanding cultures and religions, respect for others and not harming others. This education programme will commence at the kindergarten and continue at primary and high schools. In every age group vital concepts for understanding the other will be studied. This programme is critical for establishing peaceful relationships and trust between the two parties."

That is exactly the sort of approach that I (and I hope other British Liberal Democrats) would passionately endorse, although I write here in a personal capacity. Joint Palestinian-Israeli articles such as this have got to be preferable to the politics of shouting, which too often dominates British discussion of these matters.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Trojan Horse - a sense of proportion needed

A sense of proportion means not only understanding how small something is; it also means understanding how large some things are. I do, therefore, appreciate the enormity of what I have read in this week's media accounts of Ofsted's reports on some schools attended by Muslims in Birmingham. I have blogged previously here about the need to tackle extremism of this sort (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/nick-clegg-on-extremism.html) and I get entirely that we are talking about an extremist political ideology (radical islamism (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22640614), that is - not the great faith of Islam itself) that has inspired disgusting acts of violence, terrorism and intolerance in which huge numbers of innocent people have been killed, maimed and subjugated. The presence of such an ideology in schools (any schools, not just British schools) cannot be tolerated and must be stopped.

Why, then, do I call for a sense of proportion? Just because some details of what I read in the media give me pause for thought. If segregation of pupils by gender within a school is extreme, then how much more 'extreme' is segregation of pupils by gender between schools, so that some schools only take boys and some only take girls - and yet I attended an all-boys school, which was not (then) a faith school, but was an ordinary state comprehensive school.

I utterly condemn any segregation of female pupils that leads to their getting an inferior education, but do I condemn all separation (not 'segregation') of different genders for educational purposes? And if I do condemn that, then surely I have to condemn my own old school? And on this question of separation by gender, see also: http://www.thejc.com/comment/columnists/a-wedding-guest%E2%80%99s-discourtesy.

I also read the Standard's horror-struck account of a male Muslim teacher who reportedly would not shake hands with a female Ofsted inspector. I cannot remember when I last shook hands with someone at the start of a work meeting and, if I was teaching at a British school in one of those Continental countries in which it is customary for all men to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, then I would not kiss a visiting male school inspector - would that be taken as a terrible sign of disrespect for the culture of the country in which I was teaching? More seriously, married Orthodox Jewish men and women do not shake hands with any adult of the opposite gender apart from their own spouse, so this same female Ofsted inspector would have got the same reaction from a male teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school. So what? That doesn't make somebody a religious extremist.

Also in the Standard, there was a mention of 'Muslim campaigners' with Salma Yaqoob in the lead, with readers being invited to infer that these 'campaigners' have some sort of communal sanction from British Muslims, but what evidence is there that Ms Yaqoob is a representative Muslim leader? She is no longer even a local councillor or the Leader of Respect, and who does Respect necessarily represent anyway?

It is indeed disturbing to read about schools refusing to teach evolution. It is shocking to read of a faith school at which Ofsted finds that "not enough attention is given to history, geography, science, technology, creative activities and physical education", with pupils having "a very limited understanding of other cultures and faiths and only a sketchy understanding of public institutions and services in England. They told the inspector that they had little involvement in their local and wider community other than their immediate religious community." I am disturbed to read one columnist's claim that "In north London, and Gateshead, stories circulate of 'secret schools', to which sectarian...parents send their children for an education which is almost exclusively religious, claiming to the education authorities that they have sent their offspring abroad."

And yet everything that I quoted in the last paragraph was taken from the Jewish Chronicle (http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/118162/should-faith-schools-be-able-drop-evolution, http://www.thejc.com/community/community-life/115626/school-criticised-ofsted, http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/111769/confront-charedi-taliban) and was not about Muslim schools, but was about an Anglo-Jewish school or schools.

What does that prove? Only that the problems of some Muslim-majority schools are not unique and that it must be possible to debate these issues without stigmatising Jews or Muslims, Islam or Judaism. I am not, incidentally making any absurd - no, not absurd, obscene - analogy between those criticisms of one or more Jewish schools on the one hand, and Ofsted's reports this week on some schools attended by Muslims in Birmingham on the other. I know that the latter schools are reported to have been affected by an extremist political ideology (again, I don't mean Islam - I mean radical islamism) that has absolutely no equivalent among Jews - no such comparison can remotely be made and I am not here suggesting otherwise.

As I understand it, these Birmingham schools affected by the "Trojan Horse" are not actually faith schools; they are secular (state) schools attended predominantly by Muslims and with several governors who are Muslims. Were these schools actually to be registered clearly as faith schools, would it not actually be easier (rather than harder) to regulate how they teach the faith, what they say about other faiths, etc?

If that means that I am making a case for faith schools, then I should say that I actually wish that there were no faith schools, while recognising the right of parents who disagree with me to demand such schools for their children. There are many excellent faith schools and I wholeheartedly support their right to expand and flourish and open new schools, while bluntly wishing that parents didn't want them.

There is no substitute for being at school with an open cross-section of the kids who live in one's local area, as I did at my school in Finchley in North London, where the pupils came from a wide variety of faith and ethnic backgrounds. We were all boys together and the pupils from different backgrounds were simply my peers in the classroom and the playground.

I know that faith schools engage each other in football tournaments and other efforts to bring kids of different faiths together despite their being educated at different schools, but that's simply not the same thing as going to an ordinary school to which all the local parents (from all communities) have sent some of their kids. Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland teach us what can be the consequences of sending all or most pupils to denominational schools at which they have no Protestant or Catholic schoolfriends from the other side of the divide, and so I wish parents were not now opting for faith schools here in England, but they are, and I accept their right to do so (especially as some of the schools concerned are such very good ones), while wanting such schools to continue to be regulated in terms of what pupils are taught about the wider world, other faiths, secular culture, etc.

I would suggest that such regulated faith schools (schools that are open about being faith schools, and so can be regulated as such) are preferable to what I understand Ofsted to be reporting in Birmingham, which is that some governors of a particular faith are altering the character of some secular, non-faith schools and failing to shield pupils from extremist influences.

Assuming that Ofsted is correct, then the situation in Birmingham is a serious one and I agree with the Coalition Government's approach to tackling it: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10890776/Children-should-learn-British-values-such-as-freedom-and-tolerance-says-David-Cameron.html.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Who faked the Trojan Horse?

If (and it is a big "if") the Trojan Horse letter was faked, then who faked it, and why? If it's not a fake, then it's not a fake, but if - if - it is a fake, then was it faked by Islamophobes?

Jews have our own memories of forged documents that falsely accuse us of malign conspiracies (most notoriously The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and while I don't wish to sound melodramatic, if someone - and who? - has forged a document that 'proves' that radical Islamists are taking over some schools in Birmingham, then such a forgery could surely be a disgusting and dangerous attempt to falsely accuse some British people who are Muslims of 'crimes' that have not actually been committed - and that stinks.

If it's happening, then it's Islamophobic, it stinks and it matters more than any rows between Cabinet Ministers and their erstwhile Special Advisers. So, I say again: if this document was forged, then who forged it and when are they going to be arrested? And if - and it is a big if - the allegations of extremist 'takeovers' of schools are false, then surely Peter Clarke and all these other people are wasting time investigating allegations that have no basis in truth, based on a forged document - false allegations which have the potential to increase the prejudice faced by British Muslims (and British Asians) who have not done anything wrong.

I write here in a personal capacity and I know that the document might not be forged; I also know that all forms of extremism (in all faiths, and among people of no faith) are often dangerous and must be tackled (and I have blogged about that previously). My point here is that the row between the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary appears to have obscured the fact that the original document might be a fake.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Supporting Nick Clegg

Like Margo in The Good Life, "I AM the Silent Majority" - but if I am 'silent', friends of mine might wonder what I (as a 2010 Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate) think about my party's leadership (especially as some others have been so vocal), so let there be no doubt: I believe that Nick Clegg is an excellent party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, and that Liberal Democrats can project such a record of success in government as to win key seats at the 2015 General Election, and I disgree with that minority of party members which wants a change of leadership.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

My London local elections forecast - is it 1990 again?

On 11 December 2013, I emailed someone the points below, adding on 2 April 2014: "Still stand by the predictions below. I think that the Tories might do quite well and that the Lib Dems will do less badly than in other post-2010 local elections. Pundits will say that Labour have not done well enough, that Conservatives are gaining from economic recovery and that 'the worst is over' for Lib Dems. UKIP will do better in the European elections than they do in the local elections on the same day, and they will find it very hard to win many council seats in London, as the wards are so large – although they will get a lot of votes."

So, was I right? We'll know soon. Back in December 2013, my predictions for tomorrow's London council elections were:

∙         The elections are taking place on the same day as the European elections, which will increase the turnout among UKIP voters in the local elections (although many people will use the Euro elections to vote for UKIP, while giving their 'normal' party the vote in the local elections); these are the first London council elections since UKIP's mid-term surge began last year, and they may well take enough votes from the Conservatives to enable Labour and the Lib Dems to win some Labour/Conservative and Lib Dem/Conservative battleground wards

∙         Turnout will be way down on 2010, when the local elections were on the same day as the General Election, producing a high turnout of 62%, compared to 38% in 2006 and 32% in 2002; the disproportionately high turnout had a distorting effect on the results compared to a 'normal' set of local elections, causing some sitting councillors (particularly Lib Dems, and other, smaller parties) to lose seats that they would normally expect to have held, and that distorting effect will not be present this time, possibly leading to some unexpected gains and losses in wards across London

∙         Labour already made a big net gain of 190 seats (and nine councils, a high proportion of the total of 32) in 2010 (with concomitant Conservative and Lib Dem losses), and there therefore might not be huge scope for Labour to make further gains this time, especially as the economic recovery is starting to boost the Conservatives in the polls (as in 1990, when Labour fell from 957 seats to 926 and the Conservatives went up from 685 to 731 in the mid-term of what had previously been seen as an unpopular Conservative government – an early sign that the Conservatives were going to win the 1992 General Election)

∙         These are the first London council elections since the post-2010 collapse in Lib Dem support; assuming that the Lib Dem share of the vote is substantially down on the 22% that they got in the 2010 local council elections, then this could boost both of the other parties in different places. In English local elections since the General Election, the Lib Dem share of the vote has been 15% in 2011, 16% in 2012 and 14% in 2013; it will presumably therefore be around 15% in London this time. The Lib Dems are only defending 243 seats out of a total of 1,858 seats in London for all parties, so even a big loss of Lib Dem seats will not necessarily have as big an impact on the overall picture as might have been thought

∙         The Lib Dems are already down to controlling only two London councils (Kingston and Sutton), with Labour having already gained several councils from Lib Dem control last time – there are no more councils for Labour to gain from the Lib Dems, as Kingston and Sutton are Lib Dem/Conservative battlegrounds and currently have no Labour councillors