Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Blame Balfour. But blame Netanyahu too

It is depressing to see barriers going up again blocking off the streets around the Israeli embassy in London.
Depressing to see the same protesters massing, the same vanloads of police waiting, the same slogans shouted and placards waved.
It’s depressing to see a cartoon I’m sure I saw in 2008 being recycled as if it was new. Which it might as well have been.
In it an Israeli soldier points to a single missile embedded in a massive defensive wall. “See,” he says. “We’re just defending ourselves.” While overhead the sky is filled with planes, rockets and bombs delivering mayhem and murder on a cowering Palestinian community.
As cartoons go, it’s not very funny. It’s too close to a very grim reality for that.
I do have some sympathy for Israel. It cannot be easy to live your whole life knowing that the nations that surround you would rather you weren’t there.
Even if – no, especially if – your standard of living is so very visibly a lot higher than theirs.
But it’s hard to retain much of that sympathy when you see the effects of Israeli weaponry on the children and civilians of Gaza.
When you compare the two sides’ respective casualty lists.
Or when you contemplate the maps that show how Israel has gradually “settled” – ie taken over – more and more of what used to be Palestinian land since grabbing the so-called West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Ultimately, like most wars, this is a battle for land.
Land the Israelis claim – very tenuously indeed – to have been “theirs” until they were thrown out by the Romans in the first few decades after Christ.
Can you say where “you” were living 2,000 years ago? And if you could, would it give you more right to the territory than anyone who might have lived there since?
Give East Anglia back to the Angles, I say. France to the Gauls. And North America to the Apache, the Sioux, the Cherokee – or whichever were those tribes’ predecessors’ predecessors.
Real blame for the latest outbreak of hostilities in Gaza belongs, in a very real sense, with Arthur Balfour.
“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
That was Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, in 1917. The words, in a letter to the British Zionist Federation, came to be known as The Balfour Declaration.
The Zionists were looking for a “return” to a place most of them had never been as refuge from the horrors of Europe.
Not that Europe at that time was a haven of bliss for anyone. But for the Jews, persecution had been a fact of life for generations.
After the Nazis turned persecution to industrialised genocide, the calls for Balfour’s promise to be kept seemed undeniable.
Especially with the connivance of the most eager and prominent of all non-Jewish Zionists, Winston Churchill.
In the curious way the world was still divided up then, Palestine – a.k.a. The Holy Land – was a British “mandate”. Which gave Westminster the right, or responsibility, of deciding who to hand it over to.
And so, in 1948, the Zionists got the land they had craved since the Hungarian Theodor Herzl came up with the idea in 1895.
Which might not have been such a bad idea if no one had lived there already.
In fairness to Balfour, his Declaration went on: “…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Some hope.
And some cynicism too. Because those words make clear that he knew the land was not unoccupied.
Ironically – considering how his name is still revered in Israel – Balfour was an anti-semite.
He wanted a homeland for the Jews “over there” because he didn’t want more of them “over here”.
So blame Balfour. Blame Churchill. Maybe blame Herzl – though his vision was for a much more peaceable, inclusive and tolerant Israel than the one we now have.
None of that absolves the leaders of modern Israel – Peres, Netanyahu and the rest – from blame for the attacks on Gaza.
Murderous attacks on poor, over-crowded communities of mostly innocent people.
Repeated attacks on communities whose poverty and over-crowding is already Israel’s responsibility.
The present holders of the once-honourable Zionist flame have turned a people who once had the world’s pity into the world’s villains.
Thereby threatening the future existence of Israel at least as effectively as anything neighbouring states might do.
By waging war on the people who used to live on the land they now occupy, they have made Balfour’s Declaration look a bigger mistake than ever.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The man whose goals for Uruguay are really worth celebrating

The great man was talking passionately and movingly the other day about his goals for Uruguay.  And no, I don’t mean Luis Suarez.
The now former Liverpool striker may be an extravagantly gifted footballer, but by no stretch of the imagination could he be called a great man.
The description is entirely appropriate, however, for the president of his country, Jose Mujica. Or Pepe, as he is unaccountably known to his friends – who seem to include most of Uruguay’s 3.4million people.
It’s hard to think of any president of any country who is easier to like than Pepe Mujica. Largely because he is so, well, un-presidential.
No White House, Kremlin or Elysee Palace for 79-year-old Pepe. When he took office in 2010 he declined the option of moving into the presidential mansion, where a staff of 42 were ready to wait on him.
Instead he remains in the run-down house in O’Higgins Road, on the outskirts of Montevideo, where he and his wife have lived for years, growing chrysanthemums to sell in the local market.
His personal security force apparently consists of two plain-clothes officers parked on the road outside.
His own transport is not a limo with police outriders – and certainly no Air Force One.
Giving a lead, perhaps, to his fellow South American, Pope Francis, he still drives around in a battered old VW Beetle.
Unlike most leaders, of whatever political hue, this is a man who practises what he preaches. And he believes that for democracy to work, politicians should be taken down a notch.
“We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated,” he says.
Pictured at high-level meetings, scruffy, tieless, in old sandals, he looks every inch the peasant among office-workers.
His official presidential salary of about £4,600 a month would seem like small change to Luis Suarez. But Pepe gives 90 per cent of it away to charity.
“I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president,” he says. “I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others.
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
There is something of Mahatma Gandhi about this man.
He hasn’t had to resist the rule of a foreign empire, as Gandhi did, but he did spent 14 years in prison – a decade of it in solitary confinement – for resistance to a previous government.
The country he now heads is officially one of the least corrupt in the world, which hardly fits the Latin American stereotype. The gap between rich and poor is also unusually small.
So what about those goals?
“My goal is to achieve a little less injustice in Uruguay, to help the most vulnerable and to leave behind a political way of thinking that will be passed on.”
Better and more honourable goals than any scored by Suarez.

The wisdom of Pepe Mujica

·        We have sacrificed the old immaterial gods, and now we are occupying the temple of the Market God. He organises our economy, our politics, our habits, our lives and gives us the appearance of happiness. It seems we have been born only to consume and to consume.
·        Businesses just want to increase their profits – it’s up to the government to make sure they distribute enough of those profits so workers have the money to buy the goods they produce.

·        I’m not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress.
·        If we lived within our means, the 7billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction. But we think as people and countries, not as a species.


Big farmer versus the bees

This being summer, shouldn’t we be basking in the pleasant hum of bees? I’m sure that’s how summer used to be.
Comparing present experience with nostalgic memory may not be very good science. But it still leaves me wondering where all the bees have gone.
And if the dire reports of their worldwide disappearance are anywhere near accurate, we could end up missing a lot more than summer’s sweet droning sound.
Like most of our food supply, for instance.
It was good news last year that the EU banned the use of pesticides linked to what amounts to bee genocide.
And good news last week that Britain turned down an “emergency appeal” from manufacturers Syngenta to overturn that ban.
The EU ruling only has another year to run, though.
It’s vital that the scientists come up with a definitive answer by next year on whether neonicotinoids are indeed responsible for wiping out bees. In which case they must be banned forever.
Unhappily, it’s the big manufacturer that has all the cash to spend on research, and on lobbying politicians. As ever.