Thursday, 13 May 2021

J-TV – the global Jewish TV channel based in Britain

            Back in 2015 Oliver Anisfeld was an undergraduate reading history at University College, London (UCL).  Had he chosen, he could have had an assured future in the old-established family firm, H Forman and Son, headed by his father, the great grandson of its founder.  At one time, when London’s East End was home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, you had only to mention the name Forman, and everyone knew you were talking smoked salmon.  By 2015 the firm had expanded into an impressive nationwide enterprise with headquarters in the aptly named Fish Island, an area of east London adjacent to the River Lea.

            However, the heir presumptive to the Forman enterprise had other ideas.  Concerned at what he saw as apathy among young Jews about their Jewish identity, he dreamed a dream.  He conceived the idea of a new, high quality, online global Jewish media channel – a rich and vibrant source of information, thought, discussion and interchange about issues of concern to Jews the world over.  A source like this would have young Jews particularly in mind.  It would aim to inculcate, sustain and enrich their awareness of their cultural heritage.

Ideas are ten a penny; it takes special qualities of imagination, persistence and chutzpah to bring one to fruition.  These qualities Ollie Anisfeld possesses in abundance.  He set his sights on enlisting the help of the eminent Jewish peer, Lord Kestenbaum, to help with the birth of his enterprise.  Jonathan Kestenbaum, once head of Chief Rabbi Sacks’s office, and later chief executive of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), was known for his extensive involvement in education.

“Tell him to leave a message,” was Kestenbaum’s first reaction, when told that a young student was asking for an interview. 

“No,” Anisfeld told his secretary. “I want to talk to him.”

“Tell him to send an email,” said Kestenbaum.

But Anisfeld refused to be palmed off.  Finally Kestenbaum, impressed with his persistence, agreed to see him.

“When he told me his idea,” Kestenbaum later admitted, “I was hooked.”

Less than a year later J-TV was launched at a prestigious reception held at Portcullis House, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament.  At the ripe old age of 22, Ollie Anisfeld had become a new Jewish media mogul.

 With the aim of disseminating Jewish ideas of global relevance, J-TV posts all sorts of video podcasts across a range of subjects of Jewish interest each week.  Subject headings include, amongst others, current affairs, Jewish wisdom. Jewish philosophy, entertainment, mental health, modern and ancient Jewish history.  Over the years Anisfeld has brought scores of politicians, academics, religious leaders, and thinkers to his studio to air their views or to be cross-questioned about them.  J-TV has never flinched from controversy, challenging personalities such as Norman Finkelstein, Baroness Tonge, Ben Shapiro and Shami Chakrabati to justify positions they had taken on issues of Jewish concern.

Anisfeld says that over the years he has learned some of the techniques necessary to grab and hold a social media audience.  A video must be fast-moving, but it should appeal as much to the emotions as to the eye.  To hold the attention it needs to be slick and graphic.  Above all, it must be entertaining.  I asked Anisfeld for an example, and he quoted J-TV’s Purim fest of a few years back, when he engaged a professional Donald Trump impersonator.  It proved to be an outstandingly popular video.

Over the five years of its existence J-TV has built up a regular global audience of some 250,000, though some videos have registered a million or more viewings.  The channel finds its largest audience in the US. with the UK a good second, followed by Israel, South Africa, Canada and Australia.

J-TV is an on-line video streaming channel, using YouTube as its main platform.  I asked Anisfeld whether he had been tempted to provide a fully-fledged TV service, but he said that he had favored the internet and popular social media from the start – he’d had no desire to launch his own website to carry his content.  His idea was to make access for his audience as easy as possible, and he believes that on-line provision from the well-established social media platforms is the key to reaching the younger audience who are his main target.  Being streamed online, J-TV can be watched anywhere and at any time.

                       Anisfeld interviews Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

Anisfeld has succeeded in extending his audience to include a fair proportion of non-Jews – some 30 percent is his estimate. One ambition is, while expanding his existing devotees, to reach out to a non-Jewish audience and engage their interest.  He believes that the current upsurge of antisemitism in the West is based in fair measure on lack of knowledge and frank misapprehensions about Jews and Judaism.  In particular, he believes that some of the social  pressure placed on University Jewish societies, on both American and British campuses, could be countered by the dissemination of well-based media content aimed at people who are open to reason.

In this aim, Anisfeld told me, he would welcome input from people willing to contribute to his growing operation.  He wants to encourage creative video material and genuine emotional involvement with J-TV.  The enterprise has a long way to travel. Ollie Anisfeld is seeking help to achieve its worthy ideals.

When we were last in touch, he had this to say: "You said I didn't go into the salmon business, but I would beg to differ. The salmon is unique in that it swims upstream, against the tide, and that's what I've been trying to do every single day."

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 May 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/jerusalem-report/j-tv-the-growing-global-jewish-tv-channel-based-in-britain-667942

Monday, 10 May 2021

Afghanistan: Has Biden Taken a Wrong Turn?

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post today, 11 May 2021

On April 14, 2021 President Joe Biden announced that he was abandoning the timetable for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had agreed with the Taliban.  He had decided that the process of withdrawal would continue, but at a slower pace.  The new deadline for its completion would be September 11, 2021 – the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the United States.

The Taliban were unimpressed with Biden’s symbolic gesture.  They marked their objection to his unilateral abandonment of the earlier agreement with a surge in violence and a car bomb in Logar province which killed nearly 30 people.  Then on May 3 at least seven Afghan military personnel were killed when the Taliban set off explosives smuggled through a tunnel that the group had dug into an army outpost in southwestern Farah province. On May 6 they captured the vast Dahla Dam in Arghandab. The Afghan defense ministry says security forces have been responding to attacks by the Taliban in at least six other provinces.

   Experts say that the Taliban, despite losses estimated in the tens of thousands, is stronger now than at any point since 2001. With up to 85,000 full-time fighters, it controls twenty percent of the country.  It is this continuing power of the Taliban that is behind objections in Washington to Biden’s policy.  Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned of "huge consequences" of Biden's decision to withdraw American troops.  Her fear is that the Taliban could take over control of Afghanistan, resulting in a new civil war.

She is not alone. Many foreign policy experts in Washington, both Democrat and Republican, feel that the US should continue to deploy its military – among them Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under President George W Bush.  She too has warned about the risks of withdrawing troops and the consequent threat of terrorism.

A possible expansion of terrorist activity also concerns retired General David Petraeus, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan and later ran the CIA.  Petraeus worries the Taliban will continue to gain ground militarily and allow terrorist groups to operate, while the US and NATO will have lost the platform that Afghanistan provides for counter-terrorism campaigns.

"I'm really afraid,” he said, “that we're going to look back two years from now and regret the decision.”

According to BBC reporters the Taliban see themselves as a government-in-waiting. They have a sophisticated "shadow" structure, with officials in charge of overseeing everyday services in the areas they control. They refer to themselves as the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." 

   There is no escaping the truth, painful though it may be. The Taliban – the hardline Islamist organization swiftly identified by US intelligence in the wake of the 9/11 attack as linked to al-Qaeda and shielding its leader, Osama bin Lada – has emerged unvanquished, if not unscathed, from its twenty-year struggle with America and its allies.  The group has withstood counter-insurgency operations from three US administrations backed by NATO in a war that has killed more than 6,000 US troops and contractors, over 1,100 NATO soldiers, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan fighters and police officers.

Back in 2001 it took Washington less than a week to determine the source of the deadly terrorist attack it had sustained, and on September 18, 2001 then President George W Bush signed legislation authorizing the use of US forces against the perpetrators.  The US launched military operations in Afghanistan on October 7 by way of a series of air strikes against Taliban military sites and terrorist training grounds.

Intensive and sustained efforts by the US, boosted in December 2009 by then President Barack Obama increasing US troop numbers to 100,000, may have weakened, but it failed to deter, the Taliban’s sustained resistance.  Their demand was for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. On June 22, 2011 Obama, maintaining "We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength," announced that 10,000 US troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by the summer of 2012.

From the moment US President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he pledged to put an end to the conflict and achieve Obama’s aim of bringing the American forces back home.  It took two years of secret back-channel negotiations before peace talks began on February 25, 2019. Abdul Ghani Barada, the co-founder of the Taliban, was at the table.

This extraordinary arrangement between the world’s leading power and a hardline extremist Islamist movement was greeted with optimism by President Trump. "I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we're not all wasting time," he said.


           The talks appeared successful. Agreement was quickly reached on a draft peace deal involving the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country.

          However the agreement was far from watertight, and months of wrangling followed. President Joe Biden took office with many details still unresolved – among them evidence that the Taliban was prepared to break its ongoing ties with al-Qaeda, and that it was actually prepared to enter a political arrangement with the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani. 

Who are the Taliban? 

The group emerged following a 10-year occupation of the country by the Soviet Union.  The USSR had invaded in 1979 in an attempt to keep Afghanistan within its sphere of influence, but a decade of guerilla warfare conducted by Sunni extremists eventually led to Soviet troops withdrawing in February 1989.

A year or so later a new hardline Sunni Islamist group calling itself Taliban (“students” in the Pashto language), began to emerge.  They swiftly became a formidable military machine, and towards the end of 1996 they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul.  By 1998, the Taliban were in control of almost 90 percent of Afghanistan.

Initial support from some of the population quicky faded as the Taliban imposed hardline Islamist practices, such as amputations for those found guilty of theft, and public executions of adulterers. Television, music and cinema were banned, and girls aged 10 and over were forbidden to attend school.  Meanwhile, they continued to wage their two-handed war – against the US presence in the country on the one hand, and the Afghan government on the other. That war persists.

The Taliban are a ruthless extremist terrorist organization hell-bent on securing control of Afghanistan.  To achieve their objective they have consistently demanded the evacuation of all foreign troops.  Biden is kindly obliging.  No wonder experienced voices in Washington and beyond are raising objections. 


Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 May 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/afghanistan-has-biden-taken-a-wrong-turn-opinion-667792

Published in the Jewish Business News, 7 May 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/05/07/afghanistan-has-biden-taken-a-wrong-turn/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 May 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/07052021-afghanistan-has-biden-taken-a-wrong-turn-oped/

Monday, 3 May 2021

Time for Israel to call a spade a spade

        This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 4 May 2021

          More than two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman empire in 1914, on the eve of World War I. By 1922, there were fewer than 400,000. The others – some 1.5 million – had been killed. Most historians describe this mass annihilation as genocide. More than 30 nations agree. Some prominent countries do not, among them Britain, Australia and Israel.

          A few years ago the UK government was asked in parliament whether it recognized the existence of genocide in Armenia in 1915. A foreign office minister responded: “The Government acknowledges the strength of feeling about this terrible episode of history and recognizes the massacres of 1915-16 as a tragedy. However neither this Government nor previous Governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorized as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.”

          That remains the British government’s position. It used to be the position of the United States, until just a few days ago. On April 24 President Joe Biden, in a statement marking Armenian Remembrance Day, said: “We remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide, and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring.” All previous US presidents (with the exception of Ronald Reagan) had avoided using the word “genocide” to describe the Ottoman empire’s deportation and massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians.

          In 1981, President Ronald Reagan stated that "Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it - and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples - the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten."

          Biden’s words evoked an immediate reaction from Turkey, which has consistently rejected all attempts to characterize the killings as genocide. Turkey’s foreign ministry denounced Biden’s statement. A few days later Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called on Biden to “turn back from this wrong step as soon as possible.”

          The Turkish government accepts that atrocities were committed, but argues that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people. Therefore, it argues, their mass destruction cannot be described as genocide. Turkey bases its position on the issue of premeditation – namely, the extent to which the killings were orchestrated. However the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) is clear on the matter. In a 2005 letter to Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, it said "the overwhelming opinion of scholars who study genocide" was that the Armenian killings were indeed genocide.

          So far Israel has failed to align itself with this consensus. Israel’s reaction to Biden’s statement was a foreign ministry statement recognizing the “terrible suffering and tragedy of the Armenian people,” but notably failing to term it a genocide. However Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s left-of-center party Yesh Atid, and possibly the next to be charged by the president with attempting to form a government, disagrees with this position. He declared: “I will continue to fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide. It is our moral responsibility as the Jewish state.”

          Israel’s long-standing failure to do so possibly stems from 2001, when a Turkish newspaper quoted then foreign minister Shimon Peres as saying: "We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not a genocide."

          Peres was apparently attempting to defend the uniqueness of the Holocaust experience, but there is no evidence of any attempt to describe the Armenian experience as a holocaust. Genocide, however, is defined in Article Two of the UN Convention on Genocide of December 1948 as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

          In 1908 the Young Turks, an army officers' movement, seized power in Turkey, and in 1914 entered the war on Germany's side. As the disintegrating Ottoman empire began suffering military defeats, Turkish propaganda increasingly laid the blame on the Armenians, whom it portrayed as saboteurs and a pro-Russian "fifth column" (the Russians were allied with Britain and France in the Triple Alliance). Underlying the tension was the fact that Turkey was, of course, a Muslim country, while both the Armenians and the Russians were Christian.

          In January 1915 Turkish leader Enver Pasa attempted to push the Russians back at the battle of Sarikamis, only to suffer the worst Ottoman defeat of the war. The government declared that Armenian treachery was the cause of the debacle. Armenian soldiers and other non-Muslims in the army were demobilized, and the disarmed Armenians were then murdered by Ottoman troops. At about the same time, irregular forces began carrying out mass killings in Armenian villages near the Russian border.

          Soon after the defeat at Sarikamis, the Ottoman government began to deport Armenian civilians from Eastern Anatolia on the grounds that their presence near the front lines posed a threat to national security. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1915, Armenians were rounded up and marched through the valleys and mountains of Eastern Anatolia to desert concentration camps.  Mass murder marked the deportation. Of the survivors, many starved to death, or were slaughtered in the camps.
          By the end of the war, more than 90 percent of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire were gone, and many traces of their presence had been erased. Their deserted homes and property were given to Muslim refugees, and any remaining women and children were often forced to convert to Islam.

          In both the UK and Australia there have been large-scale public protests at the failure of the government to take a firm stand on the Armenian genocide. A petition to the UK parliament in 2020 called on the government “to recognize the Armenian Genocide” – and in fact recognition is already in effect in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by way of their devolved governments.

          As for Australia, on Armenian Remembrance Day and hours before Biden’s declaration, hundreds of people rallied in Sydney and Melbourne calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to recognize the massacre of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman empire as a genocide.

          In Israel, except for some straight speaking in the media and the statement by Yair Lapid, there is little evidence of popular pressure on the government to acknowledge the true nature of the crimes committed by the Ottomans against the Armenian people. But genocide is genocide. Israel should call it out for what it is.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 May 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/armenian-genocide-time-for-israel-to-call-a-spade-a-spade-opinion-667112

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 May 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/03052021-time-to-call-a-spade-a-spade-oped/

Published in the Jewish Business News. 30 April 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/04/30/time-to-call-a-spade-a-spade/


Reason to Believe: The controversial life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs

           Britain’s Anglo-Jewish community dates its formal birth from a declaration in 1656 by the then autocratic ruler of England, Oliver Cromwell ‒ the man who instigated and won a civil war, executed the king and established a republic with himself at its head. Anglo-Jewry’s subsequent 365-year history boasts a multitude of eminent individuals, but in all that time no more controversial a figure has arisen than Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

            The title chosen by Harry Freedman for his absorbing and insightful account of Jacobs’s life echoes that of the volume by Jacobs himself which lies at the heart of his strife-ridden public career: We Have Reason to Believe.  Jacobs’s unceasing battles with the orthodox Jewish establishment that followed its publication in 1957 are encapsulated in that title ‒ his attempt, futile in the event, to reconcile reason with belief, modern enquiring scholarship with traditional unquestioning faith. 

            Born in 1920 to a working class Jewish family in Manchester, Louis Jacobs attended orthodox yeshivot in his home city and then Gateshead, impressing his tutors with his intellectual and scholastic brilliance.  Quickly earning a double semicha (the rabbinic qualification), he moved from a period in the celebrated Munk’s synagogue in London’s Golders Green, to the enormously prestigious New West End Synagogue in the heart of London which numbered the great and the good of Anglo-Jewry among its congregation.

            The dynamite that came to be known as “The Jacobs Affair” had a long fuse.  When We Have Reason to Believe first appeared in print it attracted little comment.  Four eventful years followed until what Jacobs had written suddenly assumed toxic significance. 

The fundamental belief of traditional Judaism is Revelation ‒ that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is the word of God, dictated direct to Moses on Mount Sinai.  In orthodox eyes, the truly pernicious assertion lodged in Jacobs’s slim volume was that Revelation need not be taken literally.  As Freedman explains, Jacobs maintained that there had never been a universally accepted view of how God’s word had been revealed nor, since the twelfth century, agreement that the entire Torah was revealed word for word to Moses.  That the Torah was the word of God Jacobs believed implicitly, but he maintained with equal vigour that it was legitimate to believe that the Almighty could have revealed the sacred text over time through a number of divinely inspired individuals.  Modern Bible scholarship indicated that this may well have occurred. In short, Torah min ha-Shamayim (Torah from Heaven) the Bible certainly was, but the route by which it reached us was open to discussion.

            In 1961 Louis Jacobs was a tutor at Jews' College, the renowned training ground for the UK’s community rabbis, a post he had accepted on the understanding that he would take over as Principal when the then head retired.  As the time approached, however, his way was blocked by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie.  A member of the Beth Din had taken the trouble to read and ponder on what Louis Jacobs had written four years before.  Now he advised the Chief Rabbi that Jacobs’s views rendered him ineligible for the post.

            Freedman provides a spirited account of the subsequent furore. “The affair hit the national press,” he writes, and describes the storm of comment, within and outside the Jewish community, that ensued.  It ran on for months and, in a sense, persisted for the rest of Jacobs’s life. The “Jacobs Affair” shook Anglo-Jewry to its very core, and robbed Jacobs of any professional career within the auspices of the United Synagogue (US), the religious organization to which the vast majority of British Jews belonged. 

The enigma at the heart of Jacobs’s career is perhaps illustrated by the fact that nearly forty years later nothing had greatly changed.  Even though Jacobs had established his own synagogue, the New London, and a few congregations had broken away and followed him, the US still dominated the Jewish religious scene.  In 2005 the Jewish Chronicle, the UK’s old-established and leading Jewish journal, ran an extended campaign to discover whom the Anglo-Jewish community regarded as “the greatest British Jew”.  A long list of names was whittled down to just a few, and in the final vote the winner, beating Moses Montefiore, was Rabbi Louis Jacobs ‒ the man denounced as a heretic and spurned by the Jewish orthodox establishment. Yet at the age of 85 he was lauded by Anglo-Jewry and regarded by most as “the best Chief Rabbi we never had.”

Freedman quotes the Jewish Chronicle’s renowned commentator, Chaim Bermant:  “Anglo-Jewry is very English, and the controversy died down long before everyone was quite sure what it was about.”  In the final analysis it was about the impossibility that Jacobs found in reconciling the results of unimpeachable scholarship with the unquestioning adherence to faith-based beliefs demanded by orthodoxy ‒ an exercise that the majority of Anglo-Jewry clearly did not find over-burdensome to their consciences.  So while he was universally hailed as an outstanding theologian, preacher, teacher and spiritual guide, only comparatively few followed Jacobs out of the old-established US into his independent synagogue and eventually his breakaway Masorti movement.

Reason to Believe is eminently readable as an account of Louis Jacobs’s life with all its triumphs and disasters, yet Freedman’s greater achievement is the clarity he brings to Jacobs’s profoundly-held beliefs.  Embedded within the details of his life, Freedman traces the development of his convictions, illustrating their origins and illuminating the often unfamiliar and profound religious and scholastic issues that engaged Jacobs’s attention for so much of his life.  Reason to Believe is highly recommended.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Israel’s electoral system is in urgent need of reform

 This article appears in the Jerusalem Post on 29 April 2021

            Israel’s electoral system is no longer fit for purpose.  That is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from a political stalemate that has persisted for two years  and resulted in four inconclusive general elections.

            When Israel’s voters go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – rarely less than 20, often many more – with whose policies they most agree.  It has been described as “one of the purest forms of proportional rule”, since the number of Knesset seats that each party gains is almost exactly proportionate to the number of votes it obtains in the general election.  To qualify for seats, a party must gain at least 3.25% of the total votes cast.

The downside is that the 120 Knesset seats are split between so many shades of political opinion that no one party can emerge as an outright winner.  In the March election, for example, 13 parties qualified for Knesset seats out of the 39 competing. 

So after each election weeks are spent in backroom negotiations, while the leader chosen by the President as most likely to form a government attempts to gain sufficient support to command a majority in the Knesset.

In short, post-election wheeling and dealing is actually built into the system.  But even if these political maneuvers result in a working majority, voters’ interests are sacrificed.  The policies finally agreed between a cobbled-together majority can bear little resemblance to the policies that individual voters supported at the polls.  Moreover the concessions demanded by smaller parties in return for their support, including a ministerial post or two in the new government, look decidedly unsavory, and lead to uneasy and often unstable political relationships. 

The great enemy of change in any electoral system is vested interest.  For many years there has been a general recognition that Israel’s electoral system would benefit from a fundamental re-examination.  Various small changes have been introduced from time to time, but parties in power have consistently declined to grasp the nettle of real reform.  Reform of any sort carries with it the danger of a loss of power – and the party list system is the epitome of political power in action. Under it becoming an MK depends on climbing the greasy pole of the political system, “catching the eye” of the party leadership, and getting a good position on the party list.  It is a system notably deficient in any democratic element.  Britain has a name for it: “the old boy network” – and it is currently under intense public scrutiny.

One major difference between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the lack of any direct connection between the people who gain a seat in the Knesset and ordinary Israeli voters.  Many nations acknowledge the need for some form of direct voter involvement in choosing their parliamentary representatives.  US Representatives and Senators, for example, are voted into Congress by their home constituencies, and remain intimately connected to them.  Britain’s method, based wholly on that system, is virtually the complete opposite of Israel’s.  Party lists are an unknown phenomenon.  Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK each have to compete for the votes of their own electorate. 

The United Kingdom, comprising England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which elects one member of parliament.  Any political party, provided it fulfills the necessary criteria, may put up candidates in any constituency and compete in the election. The candidate in each constituency who wins the most votes is elected, regardless of how many votes are cast for other candidates.  This is known as “first past the post” (FPTP), and proportional representation (PR) does not feature. The idea of substituting PR for FPTP was put to the UK electorate in 2011 in a national referendum, and was overwhelmingly rejected.

FPTP is also popular across the States, although other voting methods are also used locally. Like all electoral systems, it is far from perfect. Its main disadvantage in the UK is its failure to match the national voting pattern with seats in parliament.  However, it nearly always results in one or other of the two major parties – Conservative or Labour – obtaining a clear majority. 

As soon as the election results are known, the leader of the winning party becomes prime minister.  Beholden to no one, he or she fills all ministerial posts within another few days, and the new government is up and running within a week.  Except in rare cases, which do arise from time to time, there is no need for the leader of the winning party to negotiate with anyone about anything.

As for elected members of parliament, each is regarded by their constituents as “their” MP, whether or not they voted for him or her.  All MPs hold regular “surgeries” in their constituency where members of the public with problems can speak personally to their MP and ask for advice or help.  The personal connection between MPs and their local areas is very strong. 

Despite its disadvantages, Britain’s system was favored by David Ben Gurion in the 1950s, and was the basis of a bill, tabled in June 1980, which proposed dividing Israel into 120 constituencies.  It passed a preliminary reading, but got no further.

Proposals for reform which combined the constituency concept with the proportionality of the present system have been put forward on a number of occasions.  One interesting compromise idea was that Israel should be divided into 60 constituencies, each of which would elect one MK, while 60 seats would continue to be allocated by the present system.  In short, each voter would make two choices – for a candidate and for a party.  This bill also passed a first reading, but subsequently foundered.

Despite a history replete with discouragement and failure, electoral reform in Israel is an unfinished saga.  The inadequacies of the present system remain obvious.  Another genuinely determined effort, supported by a consensus from within Israel’s body politic, must be made sooner or later to provide the nation with an electoral system truly worthy of it.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 April 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/israels-electoral-system-is-in-urgent-need-of-reform-opinion-666635


Sunday, 25 April 2021

In memory of Otto Schwarzkopf

 This article and poem appear in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 3 May 2021

                                                                    Shmuel Huppert
           
          On my first visits to Israel in the 1980s, it was natural enough for me, as a radio writer myself, to make contact with people engaged in radio, and that’s how I first got to know Shmuel Huppert. He was the head of literary programmes for Kol Israel’s domestic radio channels. Over the years my wife and I became close friends with Shmuel and his wife, Mimi, but it was only slowly that it emerged that Shmuel was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1936, at the age of seven he was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with his mother Hilde, where they stayed till the end of the war. Then, through friends, they both managed to be included in a batch of Jews from Europe legally admitted to Israel, then still under the British mandate. Shmuel and his mother later recounted their experiences in a book they called: “Hand in Hand with Tommy”.

          Many years later, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem mounted an exhibition of Holocaust memorabilia, and the intense impression it made on Shmuel moved him to express his feelings in a poem, written in Hebrew, which he called “The Suitcase”. One day he showed it to me, and asked if I would like to translate it into English. Together we worked out precisely what each and every word signified – and, even more, the intention behind each word selected by Shmuel.

          I then reconceived the poem into English. Translation from one language into another is difficult enough at the best of times. Translating poetry amplifies the difficulties a hundred-fold. English is so rich a language, that virtually every word carries a whole baggage-train of connotations, implications and connections. One example – Shmuel Huppert’s title: “The Suitcase”. Yes, the poem revolves around a suitcase, but it is also about the circumstances in which Otto Schwarzkopf’s suitcase happened to be in Jerusalem. So I chose as the title “The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf”, drawing on the pun possible in English by using the word “case”. Did I distort Shmuel’s poetic intention by doing this – and by making a score of similar choices in converting the poem into English? He thought not, and I hope not.

          The poem was first published in the Jewish Chronicle’s Literary Supplement on 11 January 1991. Nearly three years later, I submitted it to The Independent, which at that period published a poem every day. “The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf” appeared as the Independent’s “Daily Poem” in the issue of 14 September 1993.

          A few weeks later, I was approached by a music publishing firm asking whether Shmuel and I would agree to the poem being set to music by Ralph McTell. An agreement was quickly reached, and in 1995 Ralph McTell’s new CD album, “Sand in Your Shoes” duly appeared, with “The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf” featuring as track 11.



THE CASE OF OTTO SCHWARZKOPF

by Shmuel Huppert

English version by Neville Teller from the original Hebrew

Your case
Otto Schwarzkopf
has reached Jerusalem.

In the leather A.L.L.1
branded black
and Otto Schwarzkopf
a Prague address.

On the back
a hotel sticker
mountains of the Tyrol
prayer-shawl draped
with snow
pine pierced blue skies
a lake
you swam in?

You went up into the mountain
alone
or was it a family outing?

The case gapes wide
a soundless cry
they pause to gaze
at it at you
Otto.

Where now your content?
Under-wear
towel toothbrush shirt socks
the works of Heinrich Heine.
Family snaps.

In the winter of forty-four
the German order
just take what you need
twenty kilos apiece
one suitcase each
you're off to the east
no fuss leave everything else to us.

Now it's here
on show
the handle
your palm warmed Otto
cold
iron clasps rust covered.

Reference your trip A.L.L.1
Theresienstadt to Auschwitz
transportation trucks as per specification
7 cows or 30 pigs or 120 Jews.

Your case
Otto Schwarzkopf
has made its way without you
to Jerusalem.

Monday, 19 April 2021

How secure is the Iranian régime?

 

A new and rapidly growing popular rebellion is affecting the Iranian regime. On March 11 a statement signed by 640 eminent Iranians, some living within and some outside Iran, was posted on-line in English and Persian with the hashtag “No to the Islamic Republic”. It marked the launch of a new anti-government movement.

The founding statement called for the overthrow of the Iranian regime, describing it as: “the biggest obstacle in the way of freedom, prosperity, democracy, progress, and human rights.”  The signatories urged Iranian activists to unite, to make “No to the Islamic Republic” their national solidarity objective, and “to create a massive movement that can purge Iran from this dark and corrupt regime.”  Many ordinary Iranians posted images on social media of murdered and executed dissidents and political prisoners, and examples of social and cultural oppression by the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979.

Since the launch the number of adherents has mushroomed into the tens of thousands, and the campaign has succeeded in uniting opposition elements outside the country that have previously failed to coalesce.  As the number of signatories rapidly rose, it became clear that they were drawn from many sectors of Iranian society – political and civil rights activists, artists, athletes, authors, university professors.  One of the best-known is filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, who has spent years in and out of prison for his outspoken criticisms of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was joined by five women, advocates for democracy and women’s rights, who were arrested and jailed in 2019 after signing an open letter calling for Khamenei’s resignation.

The #No2IslamicRepublic campaign is supported by many Iranians abroad who are household names in Iran – singers, a composer, an award-winning filmmaker, an historian, a feminist sociologist, women’s rights activists and even former Ontario cabinet minister Reza Moridi.

The most public face of the campaign is Reza Pahlavi, the deposed Shah’s son and Iran’s last heir to the throne before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979. The sixty-year-old Pahlavi heads the National Council of Iran for Free Elections, which has been acting as a government-in-exile.  Just recently he announced a major change in the objective of his organization.  Setting aside his previous intention to re-establish a constitutional monarchy, Pahlavi now supports the establishment of a democratic republic to replace the revolutionary regime.  This has meant that a rival body operating its own government-in-exile, an organization calling itself The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has been able to come together with Pahlavi under the umbrella of the “No to the Islamic Republic” campaign.

From the regime’s point of view, the campaign could not have surfaced at a more inconvenient time.  Iran is in the midst of a delicate diplomatic game of poker with the US over reopening the nuclear deal   Is Iran going to agree to observe the terms of the original deal, which the US demands as the price of returning to the table, or is Washington going to lift all the sanctions imposed during the Trump era, which is Iran’s precondition?  A full-scale public rebellion inside Iran, not only against the government but against the republic itself, would severely weaken the regime’s bargaining position.

The situation is made even more unstable because new Iranian presidential elections are scheduled for June 18, and activists are seizing the opportunity to condemn the faux democracy that has been imposed on the country.  Iranians know that nothing happens in the state without the approval of the Supreme Leader, and that Hassan Rouhani is president only because it suited Ayatollah Khamenei in 2013 and again in 2017 to have him as a “moderate” figurehead.

Moderation may be far from how the regime intends to deal with the current insurrection. Present indications are that a military hard-liner is likely to succeed Rohani, who is serving his final term.  As with all elections in Iran, potential candidates must be vetted by the Guardians Council, whose members are directly and indirectly appointed by Khamenei, and the Supreme Leader is reported to have said publicly that the country should be led by a relatively young and ideologically hard-line president.

The Islamic Republic is currently weaker than it has been for decades. Ex-president Donald Trump’s "maximum pressure" policy, applied for years, succeeded in reducing the regime’s power, both economically and politically.  Yet President Joe Biden, determined as he is to resurrect ex-president Obama’s failed policy of seeking engagement with Iran, is unlikely to offer any support, overt or covert, to this latest effort to substitute a genuine democracy for the rigid, unpopular and failing theocracy currently imposed on the Iranian people.

If Biden does turn his back on Iran’s popular uprising, it would be a case of history repeating itself.

In 2009 the patently manipulated re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian president gave rise to an upsurge of popular anger.  The public believed that the poll had been subject to vote rigging and election fraud. Ordinary Iranians took to the streets in their millions in what came to be known the "Green Movement."  The Obama administration eager, perhaps determined, to engage with Iran regardless of the cost, did precisely nothing to support the protest.  The message the ayatollahs took was that the US would look away no matter what they did to stamp out their domestic opposition. As a result the "Green Movement" was ruthlessly suppressed, and its leaders were either imprisoned or eliminated.

Widespread popular discontent with Iran’s revolutionary regime rumbles away below the surface, and there have been other opportunities – such as in the popular uprisings in 2019 and 2020 – to endorse it, but neither the US nor any western nation has ever offered overt support.  The reluctance is perhaps understandable.  Past efforts at encouraging or supporting regime change, even in flagrantly anti-democratic countries, does not have a notably successful track record. 

To attempt the overthrow of an established regime that has all the engines of the state and the military under its control is a formidable, perhaps foolhardy, enterprise.  Yet this “No to the Islamic Republic” campaign has just that objective.  Unless, or until, it seems to be succeeding, experience tells us that it can expect little by way of outside support.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 19 April 2021
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/how-secure-is-the-iranian-regime-665542

Published in the Jewish Business News, 23 April 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/04/23/how-secure-is-the-iranian-regime/

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Dahlan plays the long game

            

           The forthcoming Palestinian elections have generated a good deal of speculation. Among the many players, one rather enigmatic figure is Mohammed Dahlan. Long believed to harbour the ambition of succeeding Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, he is currently facing a political dilemma.

          “Dahlan is a convicted criminal,” said a PA official recently, “and as such he won’t be allowed to participate in the elections. If he enters Ramallah, he will be immediately arrested and thrown into prison.”

Long viewed by Abbas as a major adversary and rival, a series of personal disputes led the PA president to revoke Dahlan’s parliamentary immunity, opening the way to his being tried in absentia by a Palestinian court for embezzlement.  Found guilty in December 2016, he was sentenced to three years in jail and expelled from the Fatah party.  Abbas then openly accused him of being involved in the murder of former PA president Yasser Arafat.  Dahlan denied all the charges.

Dahlan’s past is replete with rumours of political manoeuverings and conspiratorial plots (the Turkish government has a warrant out for his arrest, on a charge of plotting the anti-Erdogan coup of 2016).  Now he seems to have devised a characteristically convoluted strategy to achieve his political ambitions.

Thirty-six parties have submitted lists for the upcoming parliamentary and legislative elections. Hamas is running as one united list, but Fatah has split into three.  Its main list is led by Abbas, another is led jointly by Marwan Barghouti (currently serving five life sentences in Israeli prison) and Nasser al-Qudwa (who has been expelled from Fatah); and a third list is led by Dahlan.  Neither Barghouti nor Dahlan are themselves running for parliament.

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission (CEC) had the task of either approving or banning the lists. The rules governing its decisions are obscure, not to say arbitrary.  It was, therefore, far from certain that Dahlan’s party would be permitted to participate at all in the elections.  In the event the CEC has allowed them to do so.

It was back in 2011 that Dahlan was driven out of the West Bank after a row with Abbas.  He took up residence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and is an adviser to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan. It is widely speculated that he played a key role in bringing the UAE-Israel normalization deal to fruition.  Palestinian officials are quoted as saying they have no doubt about it.

Dahlan opened his campaign on March 17 with an interview on Al-Arabiya TV. 

“Abbas made three promises,” he said. “To reform and strengthen Fatah, to reform the Palestinian Authority, which he said at the time was corrupt… and to make an honorable peace [with Israel].  He did none of them.”

Dahlan maintained that Hamas and Fatah were conspiring to allow the 85-year-old Abbas to run unopposed in the forthcoming presidential election, “…as if he were 40 years old and his future was ahead of him.”

Without elaborating as to whether he would run himself, Dahlan declared  enigmatically:  “Abbas will not be the only presidential candidate in the elections.”

 Although Dahlan’s participation in the forthcoming Palestinian Legislative Council election virtually turned on the toss of a coin, Jerusalem Post political commentator Khaled Abu Toameh believes he is hoping that his supporters will win enough seats to allow them to be part of a future government coalition. Once Dahlan loyalists are in the parliament and government, Abu Toameh believes, the plan will be for them to negotiate their leader’s participation in the presidential election, scheduled for July 31.  

If this is indeed Dahlan’s strategy, its outcome is highly unpredictable.  He might, in fact,  be playing a longer, more subtle game.  Assuming the reported Hamas-Fatah deal holds, and Abbas is indeed returned as PA president for a further four  years, by 2025 - if he survives - Abbas will be pushing 90.  By then Dahlan, at 63, would have had time and opportunity to consolidate and strengthen his support among the Palestinian population – a process he has already begun by arranging delivery of tens of thousands of the Russian Sputnik V Covid vaccine to Gaza, courtesy of his UAE patron.

He is also promising a swift solution of the endemic problem of inadequate electricity supplies in the Gaza strip.

“One of my business associates could resolve it easily,” said Dahlan in his TV interview.  “This isn’t such a big deal.  We’re not talking about some enormous grant. It is the political divides and personal rifts that have – and I’m sorry to put it like this – turned the Palestinian people into beggars.”

A more covert move at strengthening his influence within the Palestinian political scene has been the deal Dahlan is reported to have struck with Hamas.  Under its terms Dahlan apparently agreed to pay blood money to the families of dozens of Palestinians killed by his men in the past three decades, in return for which his supporters would be permitted to return to the Gaza Strip.  And indeed in the past few weeks scores of Dahlan loyalists began returning under assurances from Hamas that they would not be arrested or killed.

          In the long term the real significance of these Palestinian elections may be that Mohammed Dahlan, after years of exile in the UAE, is making a formal return to the political scene.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 12 April 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/dahlan-plays-the-long-game-opinion-664951

Published in Jewish Business News, 16 April 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/04/16/dahlan-plays-the-long-game/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 April 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/17042021-dahlan-plays-the-long-game-oped/

Friday, 9 April 2021

Why dealing with Iran is a non-starter

 

         On Friday, 2 April 2021 all the signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal except the US – that is, the EU, Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany and Iran – met in Brussels and, with the knowledge and acquiescence of Washington, agreed to set up talks in Vienna in the week commencing April 6, in an effort to rescue the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump abandoned almost three years ago.  The US agreed to attend the talks, and American representatives are at Vienna..

Officials from Washington and Tehran are meeting directly. The EU is acting as mediator in separate negotiations with each side.  The talks are trying focus on how to achieve simultaneous action by the US and Iran, so that Trump-era sanctions can be removed at the same time as Tehran starts to re-comply with the limits imposed on its nuclear programme.

            Iran is a proven source of state-sponsored terrorism, a rogue state, so of course most of the civilized world wants to ensure that it does not acquire a nuclear arsenal – the consequences could be literally world-shattering.  Iran itself could dominate the Middle East while, supplied by Iran with nuclear weapons, the extremist groups it is supporting – its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza – could become an infinitely greater threat than they currently are.  

Joe Biden, who was vice-president throughout the eight years of Barak Obama’s administration, identified with and helped administer his Iran strategy.  Its architects – Biden among them – believed that Iran could be coaxed out of its desire to become a nuclear power and brought back into the comity of nations.  Hence the intensive negotiations that led in 2015 to the nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

This Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is considered by many Obama’s most significant foreign policy achievement.  Biden, like some of its architects who surround him, is imbued with its philosophy despite its deleterious consequences for the US.  For the deal, with its partial curtailment of Iran’s nuclear programme, the lifting of sanctions on the regime, the injection of a huge financial “sweetener”, and the opening up of Iran to global trade, had the effect of boosting Iran’s power, influence and aggression across the Middle East.

The inevitable consequence was that by the time Obama left office, the US had lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime opponent.  The prestige of the US in much of the Middle East had sunk to a new low. Yet cajoling the Iranian regime into signing a deal that paused Iran’s ambitions for less than twenty years was Obama’s chosen path.    

In the event, taking every concession offered in the nuclear deal, and subsequently reneging in several vital respects on the final agreement, Iran’s leaders budged not one inch from their ultimate ambition – to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East, to sweep aside all Western-style democracies, and to impose their own Shi’ite version of Islam on the world.

   As president, Donald Trump had no time for the nuclear deal that was a keystone policy of Obama’s administration.  He could not immediately “tear it up”, in his own words, since there were five other signatories in addition to the US.  But finally, frustrated by Iran’s expansion of its missile capability, and by the evidence from Israel’s seizure of secret documents that demonstrated Iran’s continued adherence to its nuclear ambitions, Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018.

During his presidential election campaign Biden promised to return to the nuclear deal provided Iran returned to full compliance with its provisions.  But even if the Vienna initiative brings the US and Iran back to compliance with the original deal, it will do nothing to remedy Biden’s false assumption that appeasement of the Iranian regime is the correct policy and will yield results.

For 42 years world leaders have been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to perceive the quintessential purposes that motivated the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, or to appreciate that these same objectives have driven the regime ever since and continue to be its raison d’être.

The regime’s original Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, affirmed repeatedly that the foundation stone of his philosophy, the very purpose of his revolution, was to destroy Western-style democracy and its way of life, and to impose Shia Islam on the whole world.  He identified the United States and Israel as his prime targets.

“We wish to cause the corrupt roots of Zionism, Capitalism and Communism to wither throughout the world,” said Khomeini.  “We wish, as does God almighty, to destroy the systems which are based on these three foundations, and to promote the Islamic order of the Prophet.”  By this he meant his strict Shia interpretation of Islam, for elsewhere he had declared that the holy city of Mecca, situated in the heart of Sunni Saudi Arabia, was in the hands of “a band of heretics”.

   Ever since 1979 the world could have recognized, if it had had a mind to, that the Iranian regime has been engaged in a focused pursuit of these twin objectives, quite impervious to any other considerations.  Instead wishful thinking has governed the approach of many of the world’s leaders to Iran, and continues to do so. The Biden administration maintains the tradition.  It wants to believe in an accommodation with the regime.  A clear-eyed look at the facts shows that this is simply not possible. This Iranian regime is not, and has no intention of ever becoming, one of the comity of civilized nations.  To do so would be to negate the fundamental purposes underlying the revolution, purposes to which the ayatollahs remain unshakably committed. In the words of the founder of the Iranian revolution: 

“We shall export our revolution to the whole world.  Until the cry 'There is no god but Allah' resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 6 April 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/a-non-starter-with-iran-opinion-664207

Published in Jewish Business News, 9 April 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/04/09/why-dealing-with-iran-is-a-non-starter/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 April 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/10042021-why-dealing-with-iran-is-a-non-starter-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 15 April 2021:
https://mpc-journal.org/why-dealing-with-iran-is-a-non-starter/


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Tenenbom in the UK: The Taming of the British Jew

               

Tuvia Tenenbom has made his name with a series of best-selling books in which he relates his encounters with an impressively large number of people in several countries.  On each journey he endeavours to elicit their views on a variety of topics, especially Jewish ones.  He has toured Germany (I Sleep in Hitler’s Room), Israel (Catch the Jew) and the United States (The Lies They Tell).  Now, in The Taming of the Jew, he turns his attention to the United Kingdom.

Tenenbom is a fearless and chuzpadik interrogator – fearless in broaching any issue, however sensitive or embarrassing to his interviewee, and chuzpadik in assuming any disguise likely to elicit a genuine response. He rarely admits to being Jewish.  He can, and does, often pass himself off as a German, Dutch or Swiss journalist; he can be a Muslim (and attend prayers at a mosque to enhance his bona fides), a Palestinian, a Jordanian, or – in his effort to interview Jeremy Corbyn, then leader of Britain’s Labour party and widely considered antisemitic – a French adherent of the political hard left named Adrian, with a French accent to match.  Although he never actually lands a full-scale interview with Corbyn (he blows his own cover by mistake), his book boasts a picture of him and Corbyn, following a chance encounter, in a close embrace. 

“Two souls unite,” he writes.  “I look deep into his eyes, two penetrating eyes, quite similar to the eyes of the Gateshead [yeshiva] rabbi.  Are they siblings?”

                                      Tenenbom in close contact with Jeremy Corbyn

            Tenenbom undertook his six-month exploration of Britain and the British during 2018 and 2019, at the very height of the political storm that followed the Brexit referendum – the nation-wide vote in favour of Britain leaving the European Union. Brexit certainly features prominently in the many discussions and interviews he records both with ordinary folk and also with political figures at the very heart of the frenzy.  He delights in stripping away their pretensions and hypocrisies.

          Interviewing leading lights in the Labour party, for example, he found it virtually impossible to get any to say outright that Jeremy Corbyn was an antisemite, though they would endorse every such charge against him.  After all, Corbyn could possibly have become Britain’s next prime minister.  Speaking to Members of Parliament, he found that most had voted to remain in the EU and were now quite prepared to ignore and overturn the Brexit referendum result. Tenenbom throws scorn on the range of specious arguments they advance for doing so.  

          Travelling throughout the United Kingdom, and spending time in each of the four nations that comprise it – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – one common phenomenon that Tenenbom encountered was strong pro-Palestinian feeling.  He found it in every corner of the British Isles, and indeed beyond, for he included a tour of Eire (Ireland outside the United Kingdom), in his journey. 

He records this widely held sentiment dispassionately, together with the anti-Zionist, anti-Israel or frankly antisemitic views which often accompanied it and which, when probed very gently, were clearly based on falsehoods or frightening ignorance.  He also records finding the Palestinian flag fluttering across the land in the most unlikely venues – on pubs, outside shops, atop municipal buildings.

Tuvia Tenenbom is a man of many parts.  Born in Israel, he now resides mainly in Germany and the US.  A graduate in mathematics and computer science, he studied for a PhD in English literature and is also a playwright and the founding artistic director of the only English-speaking Jewish theatre in New York.  During his in-depth tour of Britain, he naturally gravitates towards any theatrical performances that come his way. He sometimes chances on a production that delights him – like The Producers in Manchester, or Macbeth in Oxford – but many do not.

It was while enjoying Macbeth that a thought about Shakespearean theatre struck him – it exactly mirrors some of the innate characteristics of the British people.  Much of Shakespeare is about their history, their complex relationship with monarchy, their fights with one another, their hypocrisy.  On the stage, as off it, they talk nicely to one another, then stab each other to death.  “There’s daggers in men’s smiles”.  As on the stage, so in the House of Commons, observes Tenenbom.  It’s all “the honorable gentleman” and “my right honorable friend” said with the tongue, as poison drips from the lips.

When he visits Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare and the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he records a major disappointment.  He had been looking forward to a night with the Bard, but discovers that something of Shakespeare’s was not on offer. He was somewhat placated when he discovered that the RSC was presenting a production of Molière’s Tartuffe, which he knew to be a delightful comedy about religious hypocrisy.  However his heart sank when he read that this Tartuffe was “a brand-new version…relocated to present-day Birmingham’s Pakistani Muslim community”.  Tenenbom describes it as a politically correct disaster.  He had expected to see the best of theatre, he writes, but he ended up seeing the worst.  “I can hear Molière screaming from the depth of his grave.”

Another of Tenenbom’s characteristics is his unashamed love of good food.  He is, to put it bluntly and in French, a bon vivant.  Wherever his travels lead him, he will tend to seek out – and to relish – the best eating that the place can offer.  The Taming of the Jew offers the reader many pleasures, but none more than details of the restaurants where the visitor to the UK can find culinary delights.

In April 2019, with his time in Britain drawing to a close, Tenenbom was interviewed on the UK-based Jewish TV channel known as J-TV.  In the 20-minute programme, still available on YouTube, Tenenbom describes what motivates his undercover journalistic work.  He does not go looking for antisemitism, he says.  He sees his task as spending some six months in a country and trying to discover what people are thinking.  “Sadly,” he says, “what often emerges is The Jew.” 

He acknowledges that his conclusions are not statistically based, but after speaking to literally hundreds of individuals he says certain clear themes emerge.  The over-riding impression he has gained, not only in the UK but wherever he has travelled, is that age-old antisemitism is alive and flourishing. 

That theme certainly emerges from the amazingly frank, amusing and sometimes hilarious encounters that Tenenbom records in The Taming of the Jew – a picture of Britain that in so many ways echoes what Anglos born in the UK will ruefully acknowledge to be accurate.  What is no longer so and has passed into history is the tumultuous political scene he encountered.  Now, less than two years on, Brexit is done and dusted, the hapless prime minister Theresa May has given way to another, Jeremy Corbyn has left the scene, the braying Speaker of the House of Commons that so irked Tenenbom has departed, and the country is only slowly emerging from the totally unforeseen and unprecedented crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In short, but for the abiding antisemitism, The Taming of the Jew is a wonderfully readable account of a UK that was, and is no more.  It is highly recommended.

                                             In Scotland, Tenenbom models the kilt