Them and Us

 

There has always been a certain divide between rulers and ruled. That is the way of the world, whether in ancient Mesopotamia, the ancient Land of Israel, ancient Greece and Rome, the various nations of Europe and all over the world. The relatively recent attempt (in historical terms) to introduce an element of fairness into the system has had its successes and its failures, whether in the shape of democracy or some form of socialism, but there is no getting away from the fact that countries have to be governed, and some people seem to feel the urge to govern them.

Modern western societies have sought to elect the people who govern them by means of a system that is considered equitable and fair, namely democracy. Representatives of segments of the population or of specific regions are elected by ballots cast on a universal basis, supposedly guaranteeing equal representation for all, with rule by the majority being generally accepted as the best solution.

So in theory, as the American Declaration of Independence states, all men (and women by now) are considered equal. We’ll disregard the fact that at the time that Declaration was made neither women nor black people had equal rights, and it has been a long, hard struggle to achieve that. But the principle remains that essentially every individual is considered to be equally valuable to society, and each person’s voice has the right to be heard.

In Israel today, so the theory goes, there is no entrenched ruling class, such as there once was in England, France, and other European countries. Even in those countries it is considered appropriate today for the government to comprise representatives who have been democratically elected. When Israel’s founding fathers established its ruling institutions the emphasis was on the equal distribution of wealth, the absence of class distinctions, and the need for society to care for the weak and the needy (thus following traditional Jewish values). In fact, in the early days of the State of Israel very few people were wealthy, most of the political leaders lived in modest circumstances, and several remained (or later became) members of a kibbutz (where the principle of the equal distribution of goods was paramount).

During the course of its existence the ethos underlying Israel’s social fabric has shifted away from the principle of equality. Today it is considered acceptable, albeit not entirely desirable, to have a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and despite the attempts to provide for the economically disadvantaged, this divide seems to be becoming ever more firmly entrenched.

Another overriding principle underlying most modern societies – Israel included – is that of justice, the concept of equality before the law, that no one can be considered above the law. And this brings us to painful recent events which have further deepened the existing rift within Israel.

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted societies all over the world, causing lockdowns and economic hardship for many. The U.K. has recently been riven by a scandal over the unsanctioned cross-country drive (supposedly to obtain care for his child) by a senior government advisor, thereby breaking the lockdown rule which the rest of the country has been obliged to obey. The Prime Minister has refused to condemn that act, and so the concept of equality before the law is destroyed.

The President of the USA has openly declared that he will not wear a mask, even though this is the medically recommended way of avoiding transmission of the disease. He, too, seems to consider himself above the rules which ordinary folk are required to follow.

England and the USA are not alone in having political figures who flout the rules which the general public is supposed to observe. At the recent Pesach (Passover) festival, at which it is customary for families to eat the festive meal together (the Seder), for the first time in Israel’s history families were forbidden to congregate, and many people were forced to sit alone or communicate with their relatives by electronic means (Zoom, etc.).

It did not take long, however, for the news media to publish photos of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, enjoying the Seder with his son who does not live under the same roof as him. To make matters worse, the President of Israel, Ruby Rivlin, was also shown in the company of his grandchildren, who do not share his home.

Israelis expressed outrage at this blatant demonstration of hypocrisy by the very leaders who had called on them to observe the strictest terms of social isolation. However, instead of calling for their resignation, the public seems to have shrugged its shoulders and simply carried on. At least the strict lockdown restrictions were eased soon afterwards, whether prematurely or not time will tell.

But the most flagrant example of spurning the principle of equality before the law is being provided by the current Prime Minister. After evading justice for years by a series of legal and political ploys, Benjamin Netanyahu was finally brought before a court of law on charges of corruption, bribery and misappropriation of funds. Any other politician so charged would have resigned (or at least committed suicide) long since, but not Mr. Teflon. After his long fight against being brought to justice, just before he entered the courtroom he managed to bring additional shame on Israel’s political structure by launching an unbridled attack on the police, the media, the judicial system (comprised of judges appointed by his government) and the Attorney General.

In a normal country he would feel obliged to resign at this point, but he shows no intention of doing so, and will continue to sling mud in every possible direction until, so it seems, he has succeeded in undermining all the institutions that have been put in place to protect our society from the ravages of demagogues who seek to remain in power at all costs.

Democracy is still maintained, at least in theory. The only problem lies in the inability of the electorate to see through politicians’ lies and chicanery; and to realise that there’s one law for them and another for us.

 

‘Kriegskind (War Child); Eine Judische Kindheit in Hamburg (A Jewish Childhood in Hamburg)’ by Marione Ingram

Once a year the Hamburg Jewish Association sends me a beautiful wall calendar with pictures of the city. As my late father, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived and worked there for many years, I am somehow also entitled to receive this annual token of my family’s association with the city. In addition, the Association attaches a report of its activities in the preceding year, together with a list of books which are connected in some way with the city. This book drew my attention, and after I had submitted my request it duly arrived by post and provided me with fascinating reading-matter during the Coronavirus lockdown. I must admit that my German vocabulary is sadly lacking, so that I found myself having to look up many words in the dictionary, but I feel that the effort was well worth it.

Marione Ingram was born in Hamburg in 1938 to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and so was defined as a ‘mischling’ (half-breed) by the Nazi authorities. Her autobiographical book begins with her account of having been sent by her mother when she was eight years old to take her younger sister to their aunt. She decided to return unbidden and found her mother in the throes of an attempt to commit suicide by putting her head in their gas oven.

That is as dramatic a start to any book as any you will find, and I read with bated breath how this child managed somehow to rescue and revive her mother. From that moment on there is a special bond between mother and daughter, and it is this that saves them from the subsequent massive bombing of Hamburg by the Allies and the firestorm that ensued. Marione describes the devastation caused by the American bombers and ‘Flying Fortresses’ by day and the British ‘Mosquitos’ by night in the framework of the concerted Allied attack known by the codename Gomorrha. She describes the frequent air-raid warnings and all-clear signals, and provides a telling account of the way their neighbours refused to allow her and her mother to enter the air-raid shelter, stating that it was reserved for ‘Aryans.’

In the total devastation that followed, Marion and her mother wandered through entire neighbourhoods of burning and destroyed buildings, trying to avoid the corpses that lay on all sides, eventually finding refuge by immersing themselves in a canal. It later transpired that all the people in the air-raid shelter that declined to accept them had perished in the bombardment. It so happened that the events of Gomorrha served to save Marione’s and her family (her father had been conscripted into the Luftwaffe) from being deported to a concentration camp, but they knew they had to go into hiding. This was arranged by their father, and they were given refuge in the flimsy farmyard hut belonging to an acquaintance.

Marione, her sister and her mother spent two years in hiding in the hut, subsisting on very little food, forced to help the farmer in various tasks and constantly hoping to avoid capture. When they were finally informed that Hitler was dead and the war was over, they were able to emerge from their hiding-place and return to what was left of the city. Marione began to attend a school in the Blankenese suburb of Hamburg which had been established on the estate of the Warburg banking family to provide shelter for Jewish children who had survived the camps.

At the school Marione met and befriended Uri, and she devotes one of the last chapters in her book to his harrowing story, describing how his parents and siblings were murdered in Auschwitz, and how he saved himself while still a teenager by accepting any kind of labour in the camp. He was eventually sent as a slave labourer to Alfred Krupps’s vast industrial complex in the town of Essen. The account of the awful conditions under which the slave-labourers, who had been brought from every country occupied by the Germans, lived and worked, and the sadistic and brutal treatment by the members of the S.S. who oversaw the work, is particularly vivid and distressing. Although the conditions and treatment were atrocious for everyone, especially bad conditions and treatment were reserved for the Jewish women prisoners there.

As the Allies advanced and the Germans realised that they would not be victorious, they moved large numbers of the prisoners to death camps, in order to erase evidence of their crimes. Uri managed to survive, but for a long time was too traumatized to speak about his experiences, until Marione managed to gain his confidence and hear his story, which she recounts in her book.

Many of the children at the school in Blankenese, including Uri, eventually went to live in what later became Israel, but Marione decided to go to America, and has made a life for herself there, taking an active part in anti-racist activities. Her efforts many years later, at a reunion of those who had attended the school, to find out what had become of Uri were fruitless, but she writes of the positive relations between the seventy or so people who attended the reunion, whom she now regards as her new family.

The book made a deep impression on me, and constitutes important documentation of a momentous period in modern history. I’m glad I made the effort to read it in German. I imagine that writing it cannot have been an easy task for the author, but I’m also glad to know that it has been published in English under the title ‘The Hands of War.’

Hanging Out with Hubby

 

In Israel we are just beginning to feel the easing of the strict lockdown rules. At the recent very low-key Independence Day celebrations one of the individuals honoured with lighting one of the twelve flames which traditionally mark the opening of the day’s events declared how much she missed being able to see, hug and kiss her grandchildren. That must have triggered something in the national psyche, as not long afterwards the Prime Minister announced – as part of the easing of restrictions – that grandchildren will henceforth be able to visit their grandparents, though still keeping a safe distance. I doubt that any other national leader has included that particular facet of family life in their official announcements about relaxing coronavirus restrictions. Well done, popular entertainer Tzippi Shavit!

But in the interim, most of the population has had to tread a long and lonely road, staying as far away as possible from normal human contact. In other words, couples have been suddenly thrown back into one another’s company, after having become accustomed to a life of activity, whether together or individually, and the freedom to come and go more or less as and when they chose.

In my own case, blessed with a considerate mate and a spacious house, this has not proved to be a hardship. But this has not been the case for everyone. Families with small children in cramped flats have experienced great difficulties, and I don’t envy anyone in that situation.

Single people have also had to come to grips with even greater isolation – and loneliness – than before. This was brought home to me in a recent Zoom meeting of the group of Jerusalem residents who meet once a fortnight to converse in German, under the auspices of the association of former residents of Central Europe.

The fact that most of these – mainly retired – individuals could even contemplate a Zoom meeting is no small achievement in itself. It’s a sign of modern times that by now most people can cope with this aspect of technology. The meeting was initiated by one of the members (one of the few men), but only after over a month of lockdown. By contrast, the German language class I attend here in Mevasseret Zion started Zoom meetings almost as soon as the lockdown began – largely due to our energetic young teacher, who will stop at nothing to continue teaching her mature pupils.

In the Zoom meeting of the Jerusalem group each participant gave a brief account of how they had been spending the previous weeks. To my surprise, almost everyone had found the period positive, on the individual level and as a couple, finding that they enjoyed one another’s company and benefited from having time to relax, read, write, garden, listen to music or watch TV and films together. Only one woman who lives on her own complained that she found the period difficult and longed to resume attending concerts, lectures and other cultural events. I also miss concerts, but there’s no shortage of music on the radio, YouTube and TV.

This is no scientific study, but it seems only natural that people who have lived alongside one another for many years will have settled into some kind of modus vivendi, continuing to live in harmony, and even if circumstances change will manage somehow to adapt and benefit.

On a personal level, this quiet period has enabled me to concentrate on my various writing projects, and so I have managed to publish another novel (‘Friends, Neighbours, Traitors’) on Amazon. Hubby has been similarly engaged and has completed another learned article about the painter Caravaggio. Since his background is in the exact sciences it amazes me that he has made this switch to art history, becoming something of an expert in this field. We’ve even got used to being without any offspring for Friday night dinner. And of course, the garden got some attention too.

Provided we remain in reasonably good health, we will probably be able one day to look back at this period and see that it had benefits as well as drawbacks.

 

‘The Story of English; How the English Language Conquered the World’ by Philip Gooden

 

Having worked for most of my life as a translator, editor and writer, I thought it must be about time I learned something about the English language, which is the principal tool of my work.

I studied English at school, mainly literature with a little grammar along the way, but decided that I did not want to continue with it at university, so switched to Sociology, which turned out to be fascinating. And of course I had to use English in order to read and communicate, writing essays and gaining new insights into the way societies function.

The author of this book takes the reader through the various periods of British – and American – history, describing who conquered whom and when, and the effect this had on the growth and development of the English language. He starts with the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel and posits the idea that there may indeed once have been a universal language, now lost in the mists of time, but paralleling the tale that once upon a time all people could speak the same language and understand one another. In fact, in the eighteenth century, William Jones, a linguist and scholar, posited the theory that present-day Asian and European languages had a common root, after he discovered links between the ancient Indian tongue of Sanskrit and Greek and Latin (the last two having clear links to most European languages).

Gooden takes us through the various stages of ancient British history, starting with the Celts, who lived in the British Isles from the Bronze Age onwards. Their language is akin to the languages spoken in Ireland, Scotland and Brittany. The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, whose languages were mainly Germanic, were sea-faring marauders who settled in northern and eastern parts of Britain, and influenced the language(s) spoken by the local populace. It has been suggested that the term ‘Viking’ is an ancient Celtic word for ‘pirate.’

The Romans, under Julius Caesar and Claudius, conquered Britain from around 410 C.E., and remained there for some six hundred years, until the collapse of the Roman empire. Their language, Latin, was probably spoken by those segments of the British population with whom they had contact, but it was only after the Norman conquest, led by William the Conqueror, that the Latin-influenced French language came to be the dominant tongue spoken throughout the British islaes. It has even been suggested that Richard the Lionheart, the son of Henry II and Elinor of Aquitaine, spoke French and not English, as French remained the language of the ruling class for many generations. To this day the terms used for cooked food in England are closer to their French equivalents than the words used for the animals (sheep = mutton [mouton]; cow = beef [boeuf]), etc.

Thus, the English language which evolved in the early Middle Ages was a fusion of Norman French and Old English. At the time of the Renaissance in Europe, English became the language of literature, with writers such as Shakespeare and many others. King James, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth the First, instituted the translation of the Bible by teams of scholars. This gave us the rich and mellifluous text which is treasured throughout the English-speaking world to this day.

In the time of Queen Victoria the British Empire ruled about a third of the globe, and this served to disseminate the English language to such a wide extent that to this day English is the official language of countries which have a wide variety of native languages.

With the colonization of North America principally by English speakers, the language gained precedence over the various other languages spoken by successive waves of immigrants. Thus, with the growing pre-eminence of American power and prestige, as well as the widespread use of English in scientific and academic circles (not to mention the internet and social media), English has become the international lingua franca.

It is impossible to summarise this informative and well-researched book in this short space, as Philip Gooden gives detailed analyses of the processes and individuals who influenced the development of English throughout its history. For anyone who wants to learn more about the subject, I highly recommend this well-written and accessible book.

Up and Running

 

Yes, it’s here at last! My latest book (my seventh), ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors,’ is now available as an ebook for a mere $2.99 on Amazon. If you find the price a bit too steep for you, you can always wait for 10th May, when it can be downloaded for free. I am currently in the process of preparing the paperback version of the book, which I hope will also be available on Amazon very soon.

The story is set in a Jerusalem neighborhood in 1983. Israeli troops are mired in fighting in Lebanon in an attempt to uproot terrorist groups there. Although Jerusalem is not affected directly by the combat, one of the consequences of the situation is a fall in tourism, with consequent damage to the economy.

The book has four main protagonists, three women and one man. Helena, who is a stay-at-home mother, is bringing up her two young sons, together with her husband, Aaron. Originally from England, Helena finds herself constantly struggling to cope with the realities of daily life in Israel, and the demands of her husband and children.

Helena’s friend, Anna, an artist who hails from Denmark, is battling to remain solvent as she tries to care for Shira, her five-year-old daughter. Anna is divorced, but her ex-husband uses every opportunity to insult and abuse her whenever he comes to take Shira for her weekly visit. In addition, he has been trying to gain custody of Shira through the courts, causing Anna constant anguish and fear. Anna and Helena are friends, but Anna is secretly having an affair with Helena’s husband, Aaron.

Naomi was born in Germany before the war, and came to Israel as a child with her parents. She lives on her own, works as a translator, and is doing her best to come to terms with the dense philosophical tract she has undertaken to translate. She suffers from bouts of depression associated with her grief over the death of her mother. She and Helena meet by chance and strike up a friendship. Helena introduces Naomi to Anna, and they soon become fast friends too

The changing light and atmosphere of the city of Jerusalem also play a role in the development of events, some of them trivial, others dramatic. Essentially, the book is about life as a woman and an outsider, the difficulty of coping with the realities of daily existence, and the demands society puts on us to carry on with some semblance of normalcy. This applies both to parents bringing up young children, and (or perhaps even especially) to someone who is childless. The narrative switches between the three main protagonists as they find their attachment to reality threatened, doing what they can to deal with it.

The book ends with Aaron, who is surprised to find that matters are not going quite the way he thought they would.

Here’s the link to ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors’: https://www.amazon.com/Friends-Neighbors-Traitors-Dorothea-Shefer-Vanson-ebook/dp/B087G5NMGY

Buy or download my book, and I will be very grateful to you. If you can bring yourself to write a review of it you will be doing a good deed and giving a struggling writer a helping hand.

 

The Weirdest Independence Day Ever

 

Ever since its foundation in 1948 Israel has celebrated its Independence Day with general festivities in which anyone and everyone can participate. After I came to live in Israel, about sixty years ago, Independence Day has always been a very special day for me. In my first few years on the country I would hang out with other students, and we would roam downtown Jerusalem, join in street dancing, enjoy the ambience, bang squeaky plastic hammers on one another’s heads, and eat falafel.

After I got married and had children life became more sedate, but we always invited friends and relatives to join us on Independence Day, and would have a modest picnic together in our garden, play games and generally enjoy the atmosphere. Of course, roaming around at night was no longer an option, but it became an annual ritual to watch the ceremony on Mount Herzl on television, and be suitably impressed by the performances, formation marching, dancing, and symbolic beacon-lighting ceremony.

In the last few years, with no more children at home to be attended to, our traditional Independence Day celebration, though still sedate, involves sharing the by-now-traditional BBQ with a few old (in both senses of the word) friends, sitting either outside or inside to eat. Everyone contributes something to the meal, and Yigal and one or two other husbands attend to the barbecuing of the meat (we sometimes have one large and two smaller barbecues going simultaneously).

This year, however, no friends were allowed because of the strict qarantine imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Although we were invited by our kind next-door neighbours, who came to our barbecue last year, we thought it safer to stay in our own garden, and socialize with them over the fence (or rather through the hedge) that separates our two gardens (shades of the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe, as performed by the – unintentionally – comic actors known as the mechanicals in the Bard’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’).

So, the ceremony from Mount Herzl was limited this year, and pre-recorded, to boot. To make matters worse, we were deprived of the usual firework display, which we can see from the window of one of our upstairs rooms. That’s a shame, as I love a good firework display. But we were compensated by the Air Force display, which this year saluted the country’s medical personnel and flew over all Israel’s hospitals, including the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem, which we can see clearly from another window upstairs.

There were only four rather small planes, and we could clearly see them doing a couple of aerobatic turns over the hospital, but the show was over in a matter of seconds. In addition, the weather was a bit too cool to enable us to sit comfortably outside to eat. We braved the elements nonetheless, only to find that the thumping noise we could hear in the distance was gradually coming closer. This turned out to be an open truck bearing a powerful amplifying system which was playing loud music with one or two individuals standing on the trailer shouting ‘Chag Sameach!’ To our astonishment, we could see that this apparition was escorted by a police vehicle. Yes, the accepted wisdom in Israel today is that the greater the decibels the greater the happiness. I personally find the music that is popular in Israel today vastly inferior to the songs we once sang, and the general tone sounds to me like one long whine, but that’s just my own little whinge.

Of course, I would have preferred a string quartet, or even a symphony orchestra on the back of the truck, but that’s going too far, I suppose. Fortunately the vehicle kept moving, and eventually the cacophany emanating from it died away, and peace was restored once more to our little corner of the world. Finally we could have our dessert and coffee in blessed peace before repairing indoors to spend the rest of the day celebrating in the splendid isolation to which we have had to become accustomed.

 

The End is Nigh

 

Hallelujah! We Have a Government. Finally at last! And it’s unique in being one that nobody wanted and no one voted for. All over Israel yesterday people who were watching the nightly news programs on TV were astonished to find that an agreement had actually been signed, wondering why it took so long to achieve, and trying to weigh up who are the winners and who are the losers.

This new entity is an unwieldy assortment of career politicians and untried newbys, and may well be destined for early disaster or dissolution. Or so the experts who sound off each night on the various news programs or express their views in the printed press or social media would have us believe.

But they all seem to overlook – whether deliberately or not – two basic facts. First, it saves us, at least for now, from having to face yet another general election after the three previous ones, each of which left the country divided, not to mention all the uncertainty, expense and opprobrium that an election involves. And second, we are in the throes of a major health and economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus, and this unique situation requires a reasonably stable government at our helm. It is for the sake of providing some kind of unity and saving the country from yet another election that Benny Ganz justifies his abandonment of all his previously vaunted views about policy, and about Bibi Netanyahu in particular.

Looking around at the rest of the world, we see that many governments haven’t been particularly successful or adept at dealing with the pandemic which is basically a universal phenomenon. Some governments acted more promptly than others in imposing a lockdown of one kind or another, and their infection, death and hospitalization statistics reflect this. Israel is in a fairly good position in this respect, partly because the Prime Minister managed to act in an autocratic way and although he may be dishonest (which politician isn’t?), he’s certainly no cretin, and he based his actions on sound scientific evidence and advice.

So now Israel is having to come to terms with a new situation, one which takes us to the unfamiliar territory of having a huge government (over thirty ministers) from all different kinds of political parties, with conflicting policies and agendas, and the prospect of a changeover of leadership in another eighteen months. Many pundits have predicted that the moment of handing over will never actually arrive, despite Netanyahu’s televised promise that it will happen ‘without any tricks or schticks,’ to use his own picturesque phrase. When it comes to rhetorical ability, Netanyahu is unbeatable (no Yahoo he, to steal Jonathan Swift’s term).

Now we wait with less-than bated breath to see what happens next. Will Netanyahu manage to steer the ship of State safely to the harbour of an easing of lockdown restrictions so that the country can return to some semblance of normality, or will his opponents both within his own party and those from the rival factions manage to put a spoke in the wheels of government? Will we find ourselves confronted by perpetual infighting or – wonder of wonders – harmony and unity emanating from the curious assortment of individuals who now comprise the government of Israel?

The old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times,’ has certainly come home to roost in Israel.

Where Are We?

 

I think I’ve lost track of time. What day of the week is it? Does it matter? What difference does it make anyway? All the days are the same in this time of isolation, or single confincement, if you prefer (actually, double in my case as my husband is with me).

I’ve not consulted my diary for several weeks. When I opened it just now (only to check if I’ve missed anyone’s birthday, as I certainly can’t remember them) I see all the events I’ve missed – concerts of the Philharmonic and the Jerusalem Symphony, meetings of groups to which I belong, and, most sad of all, a childrren’s concert (Carnival of the Animals) to which I was supposed to take my four-year-old granddaughter. I presume that one day, when all this is over, we will be reimbursed or compensated in some way for all the things we have had to miss due to no fault of our own, but for the moment there’s no hope of getting to see or hear any of these attractive events in the near future.

The fact that I’ve also had to miss non-urgent dentist appointments causes me no grief at all, surprisingly enough, though I hope my teeth will not take revenge on me and start playing up for not having been attended to as planned (of course I continue to brush them assiduously day and night). In addition, our weekly encounters with children and grandchildren at our Friday night meal have been replaced by Zoom sessions, which are all well and good but hardly an adequate substitute. We are fortunate in having some grandchildren living nearby, so that one or another of them drops by from time to time to sit in the garden with us (of course, wearing masks and keeping a safe distance) for a little chat.

I haven’t left the house for well over a month, and am starting to think that I may never leave it again. Luckily, we have plenty of room, as well as a small garden, so that the near-solitary life is not as much of a hardship for us as it must be for families with many children (or even one) in small apartments on the sixth floor of an apartment block.

Counting one’s blessings is one of the occupations that I try to busy myself with, as well as cooking, doing some minimal cleaning, and busying myself at my computer. Luckily, both hubby and I each have a study and a computer, so that we are free to get on with our various projects. In his case it’s preparing another article for his website on Caravaggio, and in my case it’s getting my latest novel, ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors,’ ready for publication on Amazon, first as an ebook and eventually also – hopefully – as a paperback. We’re both in the final stages of our respective projects, and will have to try and take a breather upon completing them before going on to the next (luckily, there’s always another one forming on the edges of our minds).

Meanwhile, the politicians continue with their manipulations and skullduggery, casting a dark shadow over everything and everyone. And so, despite the best efforts of the population at large to keep to the official restrictions about staying away from friends and families, those same politicians blatantly disregard them when it comes to their own families, probably laughing up their sleeves while doing so. As for their pleas to opposition parties to unite with them in order to serve the common cause, these have been proved time and again to be empty, hypocritical and self-serving.

We all know that politicians are no angels, but surely Israel deserves a better leadership than these narcissistic phonies.

 

‘Musulmane mais libre’ by Irshad Manji

 

Only after I started reading this book, which was lent to me by a friend, did I discover that it had been originally written in English and what I was reading – as part of my efforts to improve my French – was its translation into French. But I persevered with the translated version, and feel a sense of achievement at having finally finished reading this well-constructed set of opinions and ideas about the Muslim religion. The title of the original English version was ‘The Trouble With Islam.’

The author was born into a Muslim family living in Canada, so therefore she grew up in a modern, pluralistic and capitalist society while being educated in the tradition of the Muslim religion. In the first part of her book she identifies herself as a lesbian, a journalist and a feminist with an enquirinig mind and openness to interaction with other cultures. She has studied the Koran and the various Muslim texts extensively, and has come to the conclusion that the way the religion is pursued in most Muslim countries today is in fact a travesty and a distortion of its original principles.

Irshad Manji has a great deal to say about the way Muslims treat women and minorities in their midst. She regards the fact that women are regarded as inferior and legally defined as minors in many Arab countries as a distortion of the teachings of Mohammed. She points to the inherent injustice of depriving women and minorities of equal rights, of basic human rights, although she claims that Mohammed taught otherwise. Her contention is that the mediaeval clergy highjacked the religion and twisted its teachings. Her study of the texts and of history has shown her that in its golden age Islam was the agent that stimulated and disseminated learning and interfaith cooperation. She goes even further by claiming that the ideas of Islam led to the Renaissance in Europe, since cooperation between Muslims, Christians and Jews gave rise to the translation and propagation of ancient Greek texts and subsequent intellectual and cultural interaction.

In her quest for understanding, Manji visited Israel and toured various holy sites. She points out that she was given unhindered access to most places, but that when she tried to visit the Al Aksa mosque she was stopped and obliged to conform to various religious demands as regards her clothing and demeanour. She noted that Israeli journalists are able to criticize their government openly, without fear of punishment, whereas that is far from being the case in the countries ruled in accordance with the precepts of Islam. She develops the theory that the traditions of the desert tribes who were among the first adherents to Islam has come to dominate the religion and that the habits and customs of ‘Islam of the desert’ have been inflexible and resistant to adapting to the changing world. Thus, the customs and attitudes of the desert tribes have taken over the religion that was once more tolerant and open to others. She derides Islamic countries like Pakistan and several Middle Eastern where poverty and ignorance prevail, and elementary human rights are not respected.

On the basis of her reading of the Koran and other ancient Muslim texts Manji has developed a theory for reviving the tradition of Ijtihad, the more open and accepting approach which, she asserts, once existed within Islam. Manji claims that this tradition was crushed by the mediaeval clergy, forcing the religion into a fossilized form that was intolerant of others and suspicious of any new idea. She goes further, maintaining that it is within the power of that approach to rejuvenate the Muslim religion and being it into line with developments in the modern world. She also points to the anomaly by which Muslims living in western societies are able to practice their religion openly and are not subject to prejudice, while Jews and Christians – and even Muslims belonging to different streams of the religion – are not tolerated in most Muslim societies. She points to Indonesia and Malaysia as examples of Muslim countries which do tolerate minorities, and puts this down to the fact that their form of Islam is not based so closely on the ‘Islam of the desert.’

Her book is written in the form of an open letter to Muslims everywhere, and she concludes by calling on all Muslims to join her in adhering to a more open and tolerant version of Islam. Whether she will be acclaimed or condemned for this is an open question, but I personally have not seen any indication of a seismic shift in countries under Muslim rule.

What are your Plans?

 

In my youth, that was the question that a beloved uncle would always ask the younger members of the family. The only problem was that his heavy German accent would make us laugh, quite apart from the fact that, frivolous young people that we were, we were not in the habit of making plans about our future. We were at school and were simply continuing along the path that had been laid out for us by society, never really thinking about the future.

Today that’s one question that is well-nigh impossible to answer. In the current situation of uncertainty it’s virtually out of the question to make any plans for either the near or the distant future. It’s a terrible blow for adults accustomed to being in charge of their lives, as well as for anyone wondering where to spend their next vacation, what to study at university, or which profession to pursue.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a devastating combination of turmoil and uncertainty to many lives. There can be very few people on the planet who are untouched by some aspect of it, even if by some lucky chance they are still able to earn a living, although this is not the case for most people since almost all economic activity has come to a stop. Older people like myself, especially those with underlying illnesses, began to avoid going outside even earlier. I, for example, haven’t left my house for a month other than to potter about a bit in my garden.

The change in lifestyle hasn’t been so radical for those of us who are in retirement, even a relatively active one. Attending classes and lectures is something that used to break the routine, since we no longer had a place of work to go to, but it was not a hard-and-fast duty, more of a social and intellectual diversion. The same goes for attending concerts, plays, or other cultural events. I personally miss the occasional thrill of putting on nice clothes and going out to attend a performance of some kind, but one soon learns to live without it. There are plenty of musical and dramatic performance on TV and the internet, as well as the constant musical background provided by the radio, so that we are not totally deprived of intellectual stimulation and the music we love. It goes without saying that the digital world is full of a wide range of entertainment and educational content. It also enables us to remain in contact with friends and family.

But the question remains – what lies ahead? How long will we remain cooped up in our houses (some of us less ‘cooped’ than others)? And what will the world look like when all ‘this’ is finally over? I don’t share the view of some people, namely, that things will go back to being just as they were before. In fact, that’s hardly likely to happen given the economic upheaval that most countries – Israel included – have undergone, and the heavy financial burden that governments and individuals are having to bear.

For a start, I’m convinced that the period of lockdown will lead to the breakdown of many marriages and relationships, that many people’s mental stability will be undermined, and that many features of the social fabric that bound our society beforehand will wither and die. People will have become more accustomed to the solitary life and feel less need of social interaction.

I imagine that the double whammy of the prolonged enforced closure of cafés and restaurants and financial hardship on all sides will prevent many such enterprises from opening their doors again. Not all those people who have lost their jobs will find employment again, and the general level of prosperity in society will be far lower than it has been in the recent past, leading to a lower standard of living for everyone.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, people will be kinder and gentler towards one another once the crisis is over. However, if human nature is anything to go by, the dog-eats-dog attitude will rise to the surface, competition for assets, jobs, even food, will be fierce and any return to the normality we once knew will be a long way down the road.

As for plans, it’s best to remind ourselves of the old adage ‘man proposes and God disposes.’ Whatever plans we had have probably gone awry (I know mine have), and there’s little point in wasting time and energy thinking about the future.

But we humans are social beings and our minds are adaptable. We will get used to the ‘new normal’ that lies ahead, and perhaps the best thing to do now is to prepare ourselves mentally and physically to confront a different world from the one we have known till now.