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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.