Life Under Apartheid

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 Progrund

 It might seem a little out of date, but it was interesting to sit in a pleasant Jerusalem home last week and listen to Benjamin Progrund’s lecture about his life as a journalist in South Africa when it was still an apartheid state.

Benjamin Progrund was born in that country and while achieving prominence as a journalist was also involved in anti-apartheid activities. His career brought him into contact with many of South Africa’s leading personalities, including Nelson Mandela, and his account of the way both the white and black population was subject to the repressive apartheid regime was an eye-opener for many of us in the audience. Surveillance by the Secret Service was pervasive, and informants were everywhere, often being blackmailed into working for the government.

Benjamin Progrund began his talk by giving us an overview of the history of the country, describing the various colonial powers (British and Dutch), and the eventual introduction of official racial segregation in 1948 by the ruling Africaans party. The page that he passed round containing the eleven different racial categories into which the population was divided, ranging from ‘white’ through ‘Cape Coloured’ and ‘Coloured person of South-West Africa’ to ‘Baster of Rehoboth’ and ‘Nama of South-West Africa,’ provided an indication of the lengths (or rather depths) to which racism was endemic throughout that society, with severe penalties for infringement of any of the laws promulgated to sustain the corrupt system. Everyone had to carry a pass at all times denoting the racial category to which he or she belonged.

After the newspaper for which he worked, the Rand Daily Mail, was closed by the authorities in 1985, as a result of its anti-apartheid stance, Mr. Progrund found himself ‘unemployable’ in South Africa He went into exile in the UK and eventually came to live in Israel, where he is active in the Yakar movement.

Mr. Progrund was asked about apartheid in Israel, an accusation that is sometimes levelled at this country, and he referred us to his recent book on the subject. However, it seems appropriate to cite an article he wrote for the Guardian earlier this year, “Crucially, the Arabs of Israel have the vote and Israeli Arab MPs sit in parliament. An Arab judge sits on the country’s highest court; an Arab is chief surgeon at a leading hospital; an Arab commands a brigade of the Israeli army; others head university departments. Arab and Jewish babies are born in the same delivery rooms, attended by the same doctors and nurses, and mothers recover in adjoining beds. Jews and Arabs travel on the same trains, taxis and – yes – buses. Universities, theatres, cinemas, beaches and restaurants are open to all.

“However, Israeli Arabs – Palestinian citizens of Israel – do suffer discrimination, starting with severe restrictions on land use. Their generally poorer school results mean lower rates of entry into higher education, which has an impact on jobs and income levels. Arab citizens of Israel deeply resent Israel’s Law of Return whereby a Jew anywhere in the world can immigrate to Israel but Arabs cannot. Some might argue that the Jewish majority has the right to impose such a policy, just as Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states have the right not to allow Christians as citizens. But it’s a troubling discrimination.”

Those of us who live in Israel are aware of the problematic nature of some of its institutions and customs, but the bottom line is that while Israeli Arabs have full and almost equal rights, the Arabs of the Territories are subject to many more restrictions and do not have representation. How that issue is to be resolved is a thorny problem with no viable solution in sight in the foreseeable future.

 

 

A Night to Remember

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 Verdi’s Requiem is not often performed in Israel. It requires a massive choir, an accomplished and enormous orchestra with augmented brass section, and four top-flight vocal soloists. In addition, it should be performed in an auditorium that can cope with the wide range of volume, tone and timbre that this work requires.

So it was with certain reservations that we ventured as far afield as Herzliya (just one hour’s drive away from our home near Jerusalem) to attend a performance given by our own native Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra with local choirs and soloists whose names were not familiar to us from any of the many concerts we have attended in Jerusalem.

Before the concert began, the conductor, Amos Talmon (another name with which we were not familiar) gave a brief talk. He briefly mentioned the circumstances of the work’s composition, arising from the attempt by Verdi to organize a joint homage to Rossini by the most prominent composers of Italy in the late nineteenth century.

Early in his talk Maestro Talmon aroused our curiosity by mentioning the unique Jewish and Israeli aspect of the Requiem. He described the first performance of the work in Israel in 1954, when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra played it in Tel Aviv, in the open air of the grounds of one of its public buildings, and conducted by the Hungarian, Ferenc Fricsay. Although the soloists sang in the original Latin of the mass, the choir sang a Hebrew version of the words, in keeping with the spirit of the times and the patriotic and ambivalent attitude towards Christian religious texts.. The event attracted attention throughout the country, the concert was sold out and those denizens of Tel Aviv who were unable to buy tickets climbed into the nearby trees to enjoy the music. Talmon noted that many ministers and senior officials attended the concert, and wondered whether this would also have been the case with the present government.

As for the Jewish connection with Verdi’s Requiem, that referred to its performance under the direction of Raphael Schechter by inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944. When asked why they were performing for audiences which included members of the S.S. as well as other inmates, Schechter said that they were sending a message of defiance to the Nazis that they were unable to express directly in words. And although most of those who participated in the performance in Theresienstadt, including Schechter, were sent to Auschwitz and murdered, that particular performance of the Requiem lives on in the book, The Theresienstadt Requiem, by Josef Bor and the Defiant Requiem Foundation established by American musician Murry Sidlin and dedicated to commemorative performances of the Requiem combined with filmed interviews with survivors who took part in the original performance in the concentration camp. We attended the performance of the work given in Israel a few years ago and it was truly a moving experience.

For me, the work has special significance, having been one of my late father’s favourite works. It was my task on Sundays in our home in London to play and change the records on our gramophone, so that my father could work in peace at his desk while enjoying the music. Those were the days of 33 rpm vinyl records, which some people claim give the best quality sound. I can’t judge, but there’s no doubt that modern technology has produced more convenient ways of listening to music.

I also remember a performance given a few years ago in Eilat, by the Mariinsky orchestra led by maestro Valery Gergiev in the huge marquee erected in the port area for the event. The noise of the air-conditioning system almost drowned out the sound of the orchestra, especially at the beginning, when the orchestra plays pianissimo. The performance had just begun when from somewhere in the audience the ringtone of a mobile phone rang out, shattering the mood of quiet contemplation with which the piece begins. Gergiev stopped the orchestra, waited a moment or two, then started again from the beginning. That was a moment of shame and embarrassment for everyone in the audience.

But to return to Herzliya in June 2015. The combined Emek Hefer and Yoav choirs, numbering over one hundred souls and led by Shimon Levtov, produced an impressive sound, and each of the four soloists was astonishingly good. But special mention must be made of the bass, Yoram Chaiter, whose deep and resonant voice was of a quality that is rarely heard in Israel. From the programme notes we learned that he is originally from the Ukraine and in addition to his vocal career he is also a physician and cancer researcher. The conductor, Amos Talmon, did an excellent job of keeping the tempo flowing, and the orchestra responded to his leadership with its customary professionalism. Again, special mention should be made of the two timpanists, who play an important role throughout the work, but especially in the Dies Irae, where their contribution is particularly significant. It was even an aesthetic pleasure to see the young lady timpanist (sorry, I don’t have her name) wielding the drum-stick with intense energy as she banged on the big bass drum to produce the ear-shattering and spine-chilling drum-beats signifying the terror of the day of wrath and awe.

All in all, it was an impressive performance of a much-loved work, and one that will remain in our memories for a long time to come.

Parallel Worlds

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It sometimes seems as if we’re living in a kind of science-fiction fantasy world in which, from the comfort of our home, we watch the dreadful events swirling around us while we remain cosily ensconced in our little cocoon of comfort and plenty.

 The images we see nightly on the TV news reveal the appalling scenes of brutality, suffering and horror that seem to be the lot of so many unfortunates living on planet earth. Whether the events are occurring in the countries of the Middle East or in rickety boats on the Mediterranean Sea, the effect is the same – horror, despair and a paralyzing sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

 Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing their homes, abandoning their possessions in order to clamber over fences or drift in rickety boats, throwing themselves on the mercy of the sea and other countries as they abandon lives that seem to them to be either dangerous or unbearable or both. Migrants all over the world are risking life and limb, resorting to desperate and dangerous methods, in order to escape from their current situation.

 And I can understand them. It cannot be denied that a horrible fate awaits every girl and woman who happens to find herself in one of the countries overrun by the organization known as the Islamic State, though, the fate of women in most Muslim countries is not much better.

 Since time immemorial wars have periodically ravaged the Middle East, though just now Israel is not actively involved in any of them. Some people may even gain satisfaction from seeing Arab countries being torn apart by internal conflicts, but I am not among them. What I see are communities being fragmented, families destroyed and individuals condemned to a lifetime of suffering, essentially forced into a stone-age existence. Why should I wish that on anyone? Especially when I am able to benefit from all the comforts of modern life?

 I know that the striking images and heart-rending scenes in the news form a kind of nightly reality entertainment programme for the well-fed world. I know, too, that many kind people donate money and resources to help those unfortunates, but it is often too little too late, coming after the irreparable damage has already been done.

 Obviously, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions also attract the attention of the world, and intrepid reporters and photographers rush to these places in order to send the distressing images back to the rest of the world. The same goes for mining disasters, forest and bush fires and floods of various kinds. It is, I suppose, something to be proud of that humankind has developed resources to cope with such disasters.

 But all the same, it makes me feel guilty and ashamed to be sitting in a pleasant room typing this, with a full belly, books at hand and music on the radio when so many people are still suffering hunger, discomfort and the imminent threat of death.

 It’s as if we’re living in a parallel world, and as everyone knows, parallel lines never meet.

 

The Kagan Learning Centre

Kagan Centre

Helena Kagan was born in 1889 in Uzbekistan, where her father, who was originally from Lithuania, had been sent as a chemical engineer to establish and supervise the construction of glass-manufacturing plants there. In 1914, after qualifying as a physician, she settled in Jerusalem and was a pioneer in tending to the health of both Arab and Jewish children, establishing clinics and pediatric centres throughout the region. She died in 1978, having devoted her life to improving the health and welfare of Jerusalem’s children.

Among her spheres of activity was the prevention of juvenile delinquency, and she was instrumental in providing an environment where youngsters could find a positive and supportive atmosphere rather than roaming the streets, providing them with coaching in their school work and thereby reducing delinquency and school drop-out rates.

In 1968, with the aid of Wizo UK and the Jerusalem municipality, the Kagan Community Center was established in Jerusalem’s Katamon Tet neighbourhood in honour of Dr. Kagan’s seventy-fifth birthday. Within that framework the Kagan Learning Center enables youngsters to spend time in a warm and friendly environment where they can receive help in subjects with which they are having difficulties at school.

When I visited the Centre I found a large, modern, well-lit building, set back from the dingy street in one of Jerusalem’s less salubrious areas. Inside it are rooms in which tutors, some of them volunteers, provide one-on-one teaching for youngsters who are having difficulties at school, as well as a library and a computer room, and a general atmosphere of relaxed and positive activity.

Most of the children attending the Centre today come from families that have immigrated from Ethiopia, where the language used at home is generally not Hebrew, which puts the child at a disadvantage in their first years at school. Much of the work of the Center involves bringing children in line with the level of their peers in basic subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as providing them with the basic concepts that are learned by Israeli-born children even before they start school.

The Centre’s devoted teachers and administrator maintain contact with the parents of the children who attend and are always willing to help resolve problems connected with the child’s schooling. The Center originally provided its services to the children of the Katamon neighbourhood, many of whose parents had immigrated from the countries of the Maghreb and were unable to provide their children with the headstart that these children often required. Today the children who attend the Centre live in the neighbourhood as well as from elsewhere in Jerusalem.

As is usually the case with such institutions, the Centre is chronically short of funds; \ its basic upkeep is provided by the Jerusalem municipality, but it is the Kagan Fund that pays for its staff and equipment, including computers and enrichment activities. Anyone who is able to contribute to the activities of this admirable enterprise is invited to visit its website at http://www.israelgives.org/amuta/580126605, where information about giving is available.

Out of the Shoebox, an Autobiographical Mystery Historical Novel

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shoebox

Yaron Reshef begins his book, which has been expertly translated by Nina and Shira Davis, with a declaration regarding the sequence of chance and serendipitous events that led him to engage on an unexpected quest to discover aspects of his own and his family’s past. Although he had shown some interest in his family’s history, the fact that his father had died when he was seven years old had inevitably limited his access to information. What eventually set him off on a two-year-long paper-trail was a phone-call that came out of the blue in July 2011 from an attorney representing the Company for the Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets seeking Yaron, the son and legal heir of Shlomo Zvi Finkelman. It transpires that, together with an associate, one Mordechai Liebman, Yaron’s father had bought a plot of land in the Haifa area in 1935 and that in order to benefit from this property all Yaron had to do was to prove that he was indeed the son of Shlomo Zvi Finkelman and that neither Mordechai Liebman nor his heirs were alive.

It turned out that this was no simple request. Yaron’s father had moved from Poland to Israel, then Mandatory Palestine, on a student visa in 1934, though he had never actually attended any academic institution, having already qualified as an architect in Vienna. Furthermore, he had changed his name by Hebraicising it, and had not been registered as possessing an identity card until a later date.

In Israel, as elsewhere, the authorities require legal proof of identity, whether in the form of an identity card or proof of residence, or both. This was not easy to obtain, and Yaron invested a great deal of time and energy tracking down documents attesting to his father’s residence in pre-State Israel by means of the Haifa Technion, the Israel Lands Authority, the Tel-Aviv City Archives and the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. He was also required to find proof of a connection between his father and Mordechai Liebman, and in this, too, he was eventually successful, though his task was far from easy. Amazingly, he claims that wherever he turned the officials with whom he came into contact were invariably courteous and helpful!

To cut a long story short (the book has over 260 pages) the necessary documents were eventually found, the relationship between father and son was established, the address where his father had first lived verified, and compensation received. But that was not the end of the story. Having uncovered all kinds of previously unknown connections with his father’s past, Yaron felt impelled to visit the town of Chortkow in the Ukraine from which both of his parents had originally hailed, and escaped at the eleventh hour, having returned there from pre-State Israel for a family visit. It so happens that my own father-in-law also came from there, and reading the account of the theft of property and wholesale massacre of almost all the members of Chortkow’s once-prosperous Jewish community, first by the Soviets and subsequently by the Nazis and the local residents, was almost unbearably painful for me.

Yaron describes in considerable detail his visit to Chortkow and the surrounding area. Like his father, he is an architect, and thus provides a telling visual account (with photographs) of the remaining structures in the region. There are many emotional moments, and the reader is swept along with Yaron on his roller-coaster of conflicting emotions and heart-wrenching experiences. The English translation by reads well on the whole, though I’m not convinced that ‘lot’ is the best term for the Hebrew word ‘migrash.’ I think ‘plot of land’ and ‘plot’ or ‘parcel’ would have been a better choice.

I wrote to Yaron, telling him of my connection with the story and the depression that beset me every time I read another chapter, but he replied saying that for him it had been an uplifting experience, bringing him into contact with the family he had never known and clarifying aspects of his past. As someone who has written about her own family’s history, I can sympathise with that emotion despite the bitter taste that is left by reading about yet another place and time when evil prevailed over good.

 

The Joys of a Garden

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Land is scarce in Jerusalem, so I can consider myself very fortunate to have a small plot of land attached to my house. It is divided into terraced sections because of the lay of the land, which is actually the side of a hill. Thus the back of my house is protected by the hillside that abuts it and we have no windows on that side, providing the building with excellent insulation. Luckily the front of the house gets a lot of light, offsetting the fact that two sides have no windows at all.

Most of the garden is devoted to grass and the shrubs that grow along the fence and screen us from the outside world, but one small part of the garden is devoted to flowers. By a long process of trial and error I think I have found more or less the right combinations to plant at the various seasons, thereby providing a constant show of colour that catches the eye as one enters the driveway and ascends the twelve stone steps that lead up to the level on which the house is built.

When we bought our house, some twenty-five years ago, when it was just a hole in the ground and a plan on paper, we pondered at length which of the four buildings in the row to choose. Others had the same interior layout but slightly larger gardens and it was tempting to go for one of them. But then it struck us that because of the downward slope of the road on which they were situated, the other houses had many more steps to climb in order to reach the front door. Similar houses in a parallel but more desirable road had an equal number of steps that one would have to descend in order to reach one’s front door, but the thought of climbing twenty or more stairs just to leave the house was not very enticing. Besides, those houses were more expensive.

So we went for the first house in the row, the one with the least number of stairs to go up from the road, thinking at the time of our elderly parents and not imagining that one day we ourselves would benefit from our foresight.

But apart from the convenience of access to the house, the garden has played a major role in our off-duty activities. The grass requires attention every now and again, and our automatic watering system doesn’t do a terribly good job of reaching all parts of it, but it is nonetheless pleasant to look out of the house and see a patch of green. The weeds that seem to enjoy harassing us tend to come and go with the seasons of the year, and provided we keep cutting the grass at reasonable intervals they are more or less manageable. That is the main task of the man of the house.

But it is the part with the flowers that is my pride and joy. This year, possibly because of the slow-release fertilizer that I sprinkled on that area a few months ago, it has flourished as never before. Earlier in the year, in the cold winter months, the cyclamens put up a lovely show, and in spring it was most notably the snapdragons and pansies that brought joy to my heart, with their amazing array of colour.

I wanted to plant some godetias, those bright pink, white and purple plants that have been imported from South America and have become almost native in these parts, but once again I missed the planting season. So I have decided to keep a gardening diary to remind myself what to plant when, and when to prune and cut other plants. I know that the late Walter Frankel used to have a regular gardening column in the Jerusalem Post, and even published books about gardening in Jerusalem, but I’ve found that my particular garden has its own quirks and foibles, and doesn’t keep to the rules (probably much like me).

And so, under ‘January’ I’ve written ‘buy and plant godetias, pansies, snapdragons’ and under ‘May’ I’ve written ‘buy and plant petunias, bosmat and winkas,’ and hope that in the intervening months the slow-release fertilizer will do its work. When we come back from our summer holiday it will be time to start on the chrysanthemums, and hopefully they’ll continue to provide colour until it’s time to start with the cyclamens again.

There are few pleasures in life greater than the joy of seeing the flowers that I bought in their infancy from the nursery grow and flourish and fill the garden with a rainbow of colour.

 

 

The Jerusalem Syndrome

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Psychologists and psychiatrists have defined the outburst of mystical ectasy and identification with our ancient city as a known phenomenon that sometimes even requires hospitalization or sedation of the person affected. It has a distant echo in the sense of awe that occasionally envelops visitors to Florence, but no other place on earth arouses so much and such intense emotional, religious and historic attachment as Jerusalem.

Throughout recorded history Jerusalem has been the subject of longing and reverence, first by the exiled Hebrews, then by the defeated Crusaders, and eventually by the entire Christian world. The Muslims also claim a stake in what they claim is their third holiest site. Jewish prayers repeatedly cite the sanctity of Jerusalem, the requiem mass of the Catholic faith mentions Jerusalem, the prayers of the Protestant religion refer to Jerusalem, musicians from Jesualdo to contemporary composers have written music extolling its beauty and bewailing its loss, and even the painters of the Renaissance tried to depict it (but actually painted Tuscan landscapes).

I have lived in or just outside Jerusalem for the best part of my life, namely, the last fifty years, and have seen it grow from a dusty backwater to a vibrant metropolis, incorporating religions, nationalities and ethnicities in a glorious and colourful mix. There is no denying that it has a magical beauty, whether because of its location amidst the Jerusalem hills, its limestone buildings that glow in the setting sun or its benign climate – not as hot and humid as Tel-Aviv in summer though somewhat colder in winter. But even in winter Jerusalem has a haunting beauty of its own, and the crisp days of cool sun are a true delight.

I still have a vivid memory of how, during the Six Day War of 1967, I heard shells falling and exploding around me, automatic fire not far from my home and planes roaring overhead. For a few days we did not know how it would all end, but luckily for me and mine, it ended well, when the barriers between the two halves of Jerusalem came tumbling down and the free flow of people and goods in both directions was the surprising outcome. The euphoria of those weeks and months exploded in the excitement of discovering a whole new world of sights, sounds, flavours and humanity on our very doorstep.

In recent years, however, Jerusalem Day, the day that commemorates that event has been hijacked by certain elements. It has become a festival in its own right, with prayers and ceremonies that leave much of the Jewish population unmoved and even hostile. Thus, the restrained pleasure in being able to stroll from one part of the city to the other that was once in evidence is no more, or at least not on that day. For the segment of the population that marks the unification of the city with prayers and ceremonies this also means doing everything in its power to show everyone who’s the boss now, to proclaim Israel’s predominance over every stone and piece of rubble where Palestinians live and to brandish flags and rub their noses into the new state of affairs.

How did it happen that what was once a place where it was a pleasure to live, where different cultures and civilizations, both old and new, could live side by side, tolerating one another’s religion and beliefs, respecting one another’s traditions, has become a place of enmity and hostility, with security a paramount consideration requiring almost unending resources and manpower? Would matters have been otherwise had the Jewish population of Jerusalem displayed greater consideration for the feelings of the other side? That is one of the great imponderables of our time. What is certain, however, is that demonstrating our sovereignty in a vociferous and provocative way hasn’t helped to foster cooperation and coexistence.

Throughout the ages innumerable victims have been slain in the battles to obtain control of Jerusalem, and that, perhaps, is what lies behind the current need to proclaim that it is now in Israeli hands. But perhaps that is what the Jerusalem Syndrome is all about. What is certain is that there can never be peace and harmony as long as one side aspires to grind the other one into the dust.

Skullduggery and Thuggery in the Vatican

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‘The Lost Catacomb’ by Shifra Hochberg, Enigma Press, USA, 2014

 Machinations, mischief and skullduggery in the Vatican, both in modern times and in the past, constitute the main theme of this interesting first novel by Shifra Hochberg.

 By now it is common knowledge that the leaders of the Catholic church were somehow involved in helping Nazis escape from Europe after their defeat in WWII, but why and exactly how this was done remains something of a mystery. In this book Shifra Hochberg attempts to give an explanation for this.

There is ample documentation of the policy of discrimination against the Jewish communities of Italy by the Fascist regime, and their eventual arrest and deportation to concentration camps by the Nazis and their henchmen.

Similarly, there are some who believe that the treasures of the ancient Jewish Temple, which were carried off by the victorious Roman legionnaires after the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome, are still to be found secreted somewhere in the possession of the Vatican.

These ideas, together with several others, form the essence of this novel, as its main protagonist, a beautiful young American archaeologist, endeavours together with her Italian associate to unravel the secrets of a newly discovered catacomb near the Vatican in Rome.

The contents of the catacomb provide clues to a clandestine love affair between an unnamed Pope and a young Jewish woman in pre-mediaeval Italy, as well as evidence of Jewish religious practices at the time.

But the plot keeps on thickening, with ever stranger and more hair-raising discoveries at every turn. The time-line shifts from the modern era to the period of the Second World War, and even further back to ancient times, with the author providing sufficient background information to stimulate the reader’s imagination and accept these leaps of faith. Christianity’s rejection of Judaism and antagonism towards the Jews lies behind many of the twists and turns in the history of humankind during the last two thousand years, and this fact, too, constitute a salient thread throughout the book.

What is particularly impressive is the intimate knowledge the author seems to have of the hierarchical structure of the Vatican and the way it is run, as well as with aspects of the archaeology, art and history of Rome. The characters, both good and evil, come alive, and the reader is treated to a roller-coaster ride of suspense mingled with murder and mayhem as the secrets of the past are unraveled before our eyes.

Many strands combine to bring this novel to a melodramatic conclusion worthy of any Hollywood action movie, and although some suspension of disbelief is required, the reader finds him- or her-self unable to stop reading this tale of one woman’s quest for the truth. If in the process of uncovering the secrets of the past our protagonist also happens to find true love, this only adds another interesting dimension to what is already an action-packed novel.

 

Armenians in Jerusalem

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 Whether by coincidence or design (probably the latter), Jerusalem’s YMCA building is currently showing an exhibition of exquisite Armenian ceramic work produced by one of the many workshops situated in the Old City. No mention is made of the slaughter of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire exactly one hundred years ago, whether it is defined as genocide or not. Whatever term one uses, it was undoubtedly one of the major tragedies of the twentieth century, and there is enough documentary evidence to substantiate the accusations of the horrors that took place, presaging the mass murders that were perpetrated thirty years later during the Holocaust.

In 1933, after undertaking extensive research on the subject, the German-Austrian writer Franz Werfel published his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, describing the efforts of a small community of Armenians in a village in what is now southern Turkey, to stave off their deportation. The book, which was translated into many languages, was instrumental in engendering widespread awareness of the events surrounding the massacre of the Armenians. Werfel is also distinguished for becoming Alma Mahler’s third husband.

More recently, in 2004 Louis de Bernières published his novel Birds Without Wings, which deals with the same subject, describing the harmonious coexistence of Muslims and Armenians in the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire prior to the expulsion and slaughter of the Armenians.

In a plaque alongside the YMCA exhibition the owner of the ceramics workshop, describes the age-old artistic tradition involving the intricate decoration of ceramic tiles and other objects by the Armenian community, a tradition that has been maintained and taken to Jerusalem and elsewhere by the Armenian diaspora.

Armenians have been living in Jerusalem since the fourth century, when they first adopted Christianity. Their brand of Christianity is akin to the Greek and Russian Orthodox versions, but separate from them, with its own church and patriarchate. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. The Armenian part is allied with the Christian one and is built around its central church, the Church of St. James. Some of their beautifully-decorated tiles even adorn my kitchen and bathrooms.

Armenians are scattered all over the world, and have made a marked contribution to the art and culture of their host countries. Thus, for example, famous Armenians include composer Aram Kachaturian, who was domiciled in Russia, American singer Kathy Berberian, the painter Arshile Gorky (born Vostanik Adoian) who had a seminal influence on Abstract Expressionism in America, to where he had emigrated, prominent American writer William Saroyan, not forgetting, of course, the contemporary ‘celebrities’ and media personalities, the three Kardashian sisters, Kim, Kourtney and Khloe, who are the subjects and objects of a TV series (which I don’t watch) focusing on their activities and relationships. In fact, they recently visited Israel in order to baptize their baby daughter in the Church of St. James in Jerusalem, occasioning the media stir that usually accompanies visits to this country by media personalities of one kind or another.

Israel’s government has dithered consistently between demonstrating sympathy for the suffering of the Armenians as a people and reluctance to define it as a genocide, largely for reasons of political prudence. What is to be gained by currying favour with the current Turkish leader, who does not display much sympathy for Israel or Jews, is not clear to me, but I suppose some Israeli diplomat or politician somewhere knows the reason why.

But then I suppose it’s only to be expected that diplomats and politicians will generally prefer to avoid calling a spade a spade, even – or even especially – when the question is a clear-cut one of displaying moral fibre.

 

 

What if…?

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The scenario seems quite feasible. A Muslim political party gains enough votes in the general election in a democratic European country to serve as the key element in the new government. At the same time massive Saudi-Arabian funding is channeled into the greatly depleted coffers of the country’s leading academic institutions. Et voila! The result is Muslim domination of society.

This is the premise behind Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Soumission, published in France earlier this year. The title, meaning Submission, is the translation of the word Islam, but more of that later.

In the novel, which happened to be published in France on the same day as the murderous attacks by Muslim extremists on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo journal and the kosher supermarket in Paris, Houellebecq describes the rather dull life of a minor academic at the Sorbonne at a time somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

Alongside his descriptions of various locations in and around Paris and other parts of France, as well as his account of his vapid academic work, the narrator gives lurid accounts of his sporadic sexual encounters, whether with female colleagues, former students or paid sex workers. He seems to be unable to work up much enthusiasm for anything or anyone, is used to being told by former lovers that they have ‘met someone else,’ and is torn between his need for sexual congress and his inability to form a close bond with any woman.

Among the strategies to which he resorts in an attempt to dispel his general sense of alienation and unease is a period of retreat in a monastery, but that, too, does little to dispel his sense of general dissatisfaction.

Meanwhile, in the course of the general election the Muslim party gains the ascendancy, and its very capable leader is appointed Prime Minister. It transpires that the academic regime at the Sorbonne is now subject to the laws of Islam. No woman may occupy a teaching post, female students must be covered from head to toe, and male members of the teaching staff are required to convert to Islam and take at least one wife. Those men who are over-occupied with academic life or are unable to find a wife for themselves are helped by matchmakers to make their selection from among the nubile young students.

Although the protagonist has been dismissed from his post and awarded a generous pension, he is envious of the enormous salaries paid to those staff members who have agreed to meet the demands of the new authorities in order to remain in their position. He attends one or two academic receptions and is impressed by the Middle Eastern delicacies on offer, which is hardly surprising since he has been living on a diet of takeaway food or pre-cooked TV dinners from the supermarket. What also strikes him at these events is the total absence of women.

In fact, it finally hits him that short skirts and low necklines seem to have completely disappeared from the streets of Paris, a fact he notes with regret.

A meeting with a senior member of staff, at his luxurious home, during which he is apprised of the fact that the man has at least two wives, one a teenager and the other, older, one a superb cook, seems to constitute the tipping point. His friend expounds on the superiority of Muslim philosophy and the supremacy of family values in Islam, with women owing complete submission to men, and men owing submission only to Allah.

The idea sounds appealing to our rather inadequate male, and so it comes as no surprise to the reader to find that in order to be eligible for the generous salary and prestigious academic position that is offered to him, and to be provided with at least one wife, the nameless protagonist is prepared to undergo the simple ceremony marking his conversion to Islam.

The progression is logical, the ideas propounded convincing, and it would seem to be the author’s contention that it is only a matter of time before all Europe succumbs to the overwhelming logic of male supremacy and the unification of all countries (including those of the Middle East and North Africa) under one set of laws, one language and one religion.

Complete subservience of women to men? Somehow I don’t see that happening in this day and age. At least I fervently hope so.

 

 

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