As Israel rolls inexorably towards its third lockdown (or whatever you want to call it), one cannot help feeling more than slightly peeved (British euphemism for bloody angry) as to how and why we have got to this point.

I personally have rarely left my house for the past nine months, and if I do I always wear a mask over my mouth and nose while trying to stay as far away as possible from other people. My hands are sore from constant washing. It’s true that various relatives have occasionally entered the house, but in most cases we have managed to keep our distance from one another, and we never hug and kiss one another. I fear that I have become an anti-social monster, and may never be able to engage in natural social interaction again.

It would seem, however, that despite constant reminders and prodding by so-called leaders to maintain those few basic rules, the general public is unable or unwilling to abide by them. The evening news on television shows scenes of crowds at Ben-Gurion airport boarding flights to Dubai or Abu Dabi (what for, for God’s sake?), as well as at ultra-orthodox weddings and funerals, and at celebrations in Arab villages. All the passengers on a recent flight that returned from Dubai had to go into quarantine because several of them were found to be infected with Coronavirus. Among those passengers were the head of Hadassah Hospital and several senior civil servants. How ironic. One or another of our political leaders, including our Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, are either getting infected or constantly having to go into quarantine because they have been in contact with infected persons. There seem to be a lot of them around in our ruling circles.

Binyamin Netanyahu doesn’t miss an opportunity to appear on prime time television to vaunt another of the diplomatic achievements for which he claims sole responsibility (together with his arch-ally Donald Trump), or the arrival in Israel of the first batch of anti-Coronavirus vaccines which, too, he claims as his personal success. But where is his leadership when it comes to restricting the increasing rate of infection that threatens to bring the country down economically, not to mention psychologically and socially?

Last night the CEO of a retail chain made a hearfelt and heart-rending appeal on television for shops and shopping malls to remain open in the approaching lockdown. He made the perfectly valid point that while they are not the principal source of the spread of infection, they are the most hard-hit when all or most retail trade is banned during a lockdown. Entry to shopping malls and shops is controlled and supervised, and guards ensure that orderly queues form outside stores when the limit on the number of customers inside has been reached. The sight of crowds of people at the airport and elsewhere give his argument added weight.

It is no consolation to see that lockdowns have been imposed in other countries just as their festive season begins. Israel’s government has had every opportunity to restrict or at least monitor the situation, and instead of doing so seems to be encouraging people to travel to the UAE, where the infection rate is not under control, wringing its hands and protesting that it is powerless to control the situation among the Arabs and the ultra-orthodox Jews.

That being the case, what right does it have to impose restrictions on the entire population and make us all pay for the crimes and misdemeanours of the selfish few?

‘Heretics and Heroes; How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World’ by Thomas Cahill

Although I studied a fair amount of history at school in England, and remember the concepts of Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, they seem to have been lost in the mists of time, so when this book appeared on the list of Bibliophilebooks that I receive from time to time I seized the opportunity to refresh my memory of the subject.

Thomas Cahill has written a series of books entitled ‘The Hinges of History,’ dealing with the history of the human race, starting – amazingly enough – with ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization.’ The first of three volumes about ‘The Making of the Ancient World,’ is ‘The Gifts of the Jews,’ and describes ‘how a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels,’ while the two other volumes discuss the world before and after Jesus (‘Desire of the Everlasting Hills’) and the importance of the Greeks (‘Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea’). Another volume, ‘Mysteries of the Middle Ages,’ discusses ‘the rise of feminism, science, and art from the cults of Catholic Europe,’ culminating in the current volume, though another volume on ‘The Making of the Modern World,’ is planned.

So we can assume that the author takes an expansive view of history and – hopefully – knows what he’s talking about. He certainly displays a broad canvas in this volume, starting with what he whimsically calls a ‘philosophical tennis match’ between Plato and Aristotle or, more specifically, their different philosophical approaches.

Cahill chooses as the starting point for his exploration of the Renaissance the events that took place in 1282 in a church in Palermo and became known as the Sicilian Vespers. During the service the Italians revolted against their French overlords, with much bloodshed ensuing. The force behind the French control of Italian lands was the Pope and the concept of the Holy Roman Empire, with various European powers vying for hegemony in the region.

The importance of the invention of printing is noted, as is the seminal role played by Christopher Columbus, and his voyage of discovery. These and other events are discussed with humor and insight into the character of the individuals involved and the spirit of the time. Cahill writes with verve about the figures of Luther and other religious reformers, as well as analysing the work of numerous painters and sculptors, providing many color illustrations in doing so.

The complicated history of Europe’s interconnected royal houses, with their internecine vying for power and supremacy, overshadows the course of events throughout the region, eventually leading to the flowering of art, music and literature in what came to be known as the Renaissance, namely, the rebirth of culture inspired by the former glory of Ancient Greece. The rivalry between the Italian city-states, as well as between them and France, led, albeit indirectly, to the patronage extended by the flamboyant figure of Lorenzo de Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in Florence, as well as to the commissioning of Michelangelo by Pope Sixtus to paint the Sistine Chapel in Rome, as well as many other rulers’ patronage of the artists of the day.

Even in distant England the Renaissance made its mark, and both Henry the Eighth and his daughter Elizabeth were instrumental in inter alia stimulating the flowering of the arts, drama and literature there. Although their reigns and those of Elizabeth’s Tudor siblings were riven by clashes over whether Catholicism or Protestantism should be preeminent, the arts continued to flourish. All this took place despite these conflicts, the Black Death, the Great Fire of London, the dissolution of the monasteries, and sundry other shocks and disasters that beset the realm.

Throughout the Middle Ages and subsequently, Europe was fraught by conflicts between states, some of them the result of longstanding rivalries, some even going back to the Crusades, and others being disputes over territory, religion, or supremacy. Thus, the Hundred Years War between England and France raged between 1337 and 1453. Similarly, the Thirty Years War was waged in central Europe between 1618 and 1648, mainly between rival dynasties seeking preeminence over the German lands. Other conflicts were fought between sundry Italian city-states, in Spain over the succession to the throne, etc., and in some of them the Pope was involved, either actively or behind the scenes. Some of the conflicts of religion in Mediaeval Europe were eventually resolved by the acceptance of the edict that each ruler should determine the religion of his subjects, ‘cuius regio eius religio.’ But conflict and war characterized Europe until the period of wretched reflection that followed WWII.

The book ends with a curious ‘Postlude,’ in which the author focuses on three figures he regards as giving hope to our modern world. One of these is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German cleric who preached love and was hanged by the Nazis. Another was Pope John XXIII, whose biography Cahill has written. And the third was an obscure American Christian woman, Muriel Moore.

This ending of the book is disquieting. It puts the writer in an uncomfortable light, and calls into question the veracity of everything he has written. This is a man with a hidden agenda, so that it is difficult to take anything he writes at face value. What a pity.

Children who were Saved

To mark the anniversary of the Kindertransport project, in which Britain agreed to accept ten thousand unaccompanied refugee children, the vast majority of whom were Jewish, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, the AJR (Association of Jewish Refugees) held a special zoom meeting. This was hosted by British celebrity Dame Esther Rantzen and one of the main speakers was Sir David Attenborough, whose family had hosted two girls from Germany.

Over seven hundred people participated in the zoom meeting, though on my screen I saw only twenty-five. The focus of the event was the role played by host families who took in children they had never met and gave them a home in the UK. Sir David Attenborough spoke affectionately about the two girls, Irena and Helga, who were taken in by his parents, and the way he and his two brothers suddenly acquired two teenage sisters. Neither of the girls could speak English and the Attenboroughs did not speak German, but they all seem to have quickly overcome the language barrier. The families have remained in touch to this day.

A particularly touching moment was when Sir David recollected the moment when his mother turned to the girls and said ‘Now we are one family’ after Chamberlain had announced over the radio that England was now at war with Germany.

Another speaker was taken in by the family of former British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and spoke affectionately about them, too, though he was less enamoured of their habit of taking cold baths.

There are myriad stories of sad partings from parents, the experience of travelling alone on a train across Europe, the voyage by sea to England and then another train journey ending at Liverpool Street station in London. Today a beautifully-crafted statue, depicting children standing in a small, desolate group, stands just outside the station to commemorate the rescue, Each child had a label with his or her name, and the host families, who had also posted a guarantee of fifty pounds for each child, were at the station to collect ‘their’ child.

In some cases there was no one to collect a child, and it was incumbent on the various welfare organisations to arrange for their placement. The whole project was organized by Jewish and Quaker welfare organisations, with the cooperation of the British government. This display of British kindness, decency and generosity of spirit should never be forgotten.

My parents, who were refugees themselves, just slightly older than the children who came in the Kindertransport framework, were appointed house-parents at a hostel for these children in London, and remained in touch with many of them throughout their lives. The photo at the top of this post shows the children who were accommodated at the Sunshine Hostel which was run by my parents. I am the baby on the lap of one of the girls in the first row.

No More War

Image from front cover of ‘Three Births in September’ by Colonel Moshe Givati;
published by Ministry of Defence, 1990; painting by Ziv Bashan

‘Valley of Tears,’ the dramatic series currently being shown on Israeli TV about events in the Golan Heights at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war, has had me and many others spellbound each week.

Although several of my friends and acquaintances have told me that they are unable to watch it as it brings back too many painful memories, I find myself compelled to watch. I quite understand their attitude, and am almost surprised at my own ability to persist through every graphic scene. I admit that I find it difficult to sleep afterwards, but some obsessive preoccupation with the events of that traumatic time brings me back to the screen every week.

I was living in Israel at the time, and in fact had just given birth to my third child when the war broke out. My stay in the maternity ward was cut short that Shabbat which also happened to be Yom Kippur when the silence of the day of rest, prayer and contemplation was shattered by the sound of the sirens echoing through the Jerusalem air. I managed to listen to the news on my portable radio, so knew that a war had broken out. All the mothers were told to leave the hospital with their babies, and that is what most of us managed to do somehow, as Israel’s population was being mobilized to deal with the crisis.

The scene in our home was one of confusion, with our two young children eager to meet their new sibling, my husband and I trying to find the best place to put the baby’s cot and keep us all away from any falling bombs (he and I had experienced the Six Day war in Jerusalem and expected to hear planes, bombs and artillery again) and our need to try to gain what information we could from our recently-acquired television set.

Our experience of the Six Day War led us (and most other people, too, I suppose) to expect the war to be over soon, but as we all know now, that was far from the case. As the days dragged on and grim news came from the various fronts (and we at the rear were not given all the facts until much later), the idea that matters were not going well eventually sank in.

With two young children and a newborn baby to look after our attention was soon focused on getting through the day and the night. Our apartment on the top storey left us feeling exposed, but there was no shelter nearby other than our downstairs neighbour, who was away. Although the absence of bombing and artillery surprised us at first, we knew that there was heavy fighting in both the north and the south of Israel, and hoped that the border with Jordan would remain quiet.

Now, when I watch the dramatic and graphic reenactment of what went on at the time in the Golan Heights, I realise that I was completely unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding not so very far from my home. The threat to Israel’s continued existence was more real than we could imagine, and it is only because of the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers that we are still here today.

The price that was paid in life and limb was heavy beyond all imagination, and there are those among us who still today bear the mental and physical scars of that war. Since then I have translated memoirs written by senior officers who fought in the war, and they left a deep impression on me.

I have seen various criticism of the way the TV series depicts what happened then, but in my view, if it serves any purpose it is to drive home the message that no matter how bad things are here, how rotten our politicians, how decadent our society, how irrelevant our daily concerns, anything, and I mean anything, yes anything is better than war.

‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant

I ordered this book (from Bibliophile Books) because it was described as being set in 1950s England – a time when I was beginning to be aware of the world around me, growing up into teenagerhood and going through my school years. Those were my formative years, in fact.

The main theme of the book is the battle with TB (tuberculosis) of the characters depicted in it, just as the miracle medicine of antibiotics, known then as Streptomycin, is beginning to appear on the world stage, bringing with it the promise of salvation from diseases formerly considered incurable, even fatal. While the wider context of the book is 1950s Britain, with its entrenched class differences, prejudices and post-war restrictions, the immediate environment in which the narrative develops is a custom-built sanatorium intended to cure its inmates, or residents.

The two principal characters are Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, teenage twins from the East End of London and, yes, Jewish. There are references to the various kinds of food their mother brings them on visiting days (kichelach, chopped liver, potato latkes), and the occasional Yiddish expression is thrown in for good measure. Because of the recently established National Health system, which had made the benefits of medical care universally available in England, they find themselves in a milieu which consists mainly of genteel, middle- or upper-class individuals, such as former officers, university graduates, or business people, but all with TB. The author also reveals the attitudes held by the other inmates towards the new arrivals, and Jews in general, especially refugees, with references to widely-held anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic views.

As I was reading I could hear echoes of Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ in the accounts of the monotony, boredom and gloom of life in a sanatorium, despite the good-intentions the various members of staff. The treatments are sometimes inexpressibly harsh, involving endless bed-rest on outside verandas, in all weathers, on the assumption that freezing cold air is somehow good for the lungs. Meanwhile, friendships are established, sexual adventures are experienced and a panoply of characters from vastly different backgrounds are presented. Lenny and Miriam are introduced to English literature by one of the inmates, and as the book progresses, describing the year that they spend in the sanatorium, we follow the development of their personalities.

The conclusion of the book brings us into contemporary England and we see how the lives of the various inmates developed over time, revealing the forces that have made England into the country and society it is today.

The book is written in an interesting and insightful way, and provides the all-encompassing experience one seeks in a book, namely, entering into a world of imagination that is not our own but with which the reader can identify.

A Visit to the Hula Lake Area

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pelicans-pic.jpg

The second Coronavirus lockdown has just ended, and the third one can already be seen in the offing. So anyone with a yen for a change of atmosphere and landscape had better utilise the opportunity to take to the open road, and get out of the house.

So hubby and I decided to make for the north of Israel, to the Hula wetlands or lake area, since at this time of the year it serves as a stop-over and resting place for many migratory birds making their way from Europe to Africa for the winter. Israel’s location, between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the arid Arabian desert to the eest, has made it the preferred flight path for millions of birds migrating from their summer sojourn in Europe to Africa’s warm winter.

Our friends in central France have recently reported sighting and hearing the flocks of cranes (grue) overhead on their way to warmer climes. For those agricultural communities this presages the change of the seasons, and plays an important role in their life. Here in Israel the arrival of the birds has been less welcome in the past, as they tend to eat the fish in kibbutz fishponds and the grain in fields. However, the JNF, which manages, the area of the Hula, has seen to it that the lakes in the area are stocked with fish and grain is put out for the birds, thus enticing them to prefer that venue.

The history of the Hula region is interesting in itself. Set in the low-lying area between the Golan Height and Upper Galilee, for thousands of years it has been a site where human habitation has been sparse. The marshy terrain served as a fertile breeding ground for insects, so that malaria and other diseases were prevalent, causing high death rates among human inhabitants of the region. The presence of water-fowl and other animal denizens made it an ideal hunting-ground. The local inhabitants cultivated rice and wove the indigenous reeds into matting which was used for constructing and furnishing their accommodation. Remains of human habitation dating back thousands of years have been found in the area.

Jewish settlement in the area began in 1883 with the First Aliya, when Yesud HaMa’ala was established on the western shore of the lake. In 1948 there were 35 villages in the Hula Valley, 12 of them Jewish and 23 Arab.

In the early 1950s Israel’s government invested considerable efforts in draining the marshes in order to use the reclaimed land for agriculture. This turned out to be less than successful, as water containing chemical fertilizers served to pollute nearby Lake Tiberias while the reclaimed soil became dry and infertile. Eventually, environmental concerns prevailed, the wetlands were restored to their original state, and the JNF established the Hula National Lake Park as an area where visitors can come and enjoy the bird life.

And so a couple of days ago, ensconced in a golf buggy, hubby and I drove along the eight-kilometer-long path, passing lakes and open areas where birds of all sizes and kinds could be seen and heard. We particularly enjoyed the sight of pelicans fishing in pairs in one of the lakes, and the cranes flying from one feeding-ground to another, or landing near us on ground that was dry. Cranes seem to be much smaller on the ground than when they are flying in formation overhead.

The weather was perfect, the sight of the land, the mountains and the beauty of the region were invigorating and it was good to get out into the open, breathe the fresh air, and feel that we were communing with nature once more.

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

(Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo) This is not an easy, light-hearted read. Far from it. It describes in harrowing detail the experiences of George Heisler, who is one of seven men who have escaped from a prison camp somewhere in rural Germany. The year is 1935, and anyone suspected of opposing the Nazi regime is liable to be summoned by the Gestapo, arrested and sent to a prison camp.

Although the camps were not yet sites of mass murder on an industrial scale, the use of indiscriminate brutality was widespread. The seventh cross of the title was part of an arrangement in the camp whereby prisoners were punished by being nailed to crosses attached to trees and subjected to various sadistic practices by the men who ran the camp, leading ecventually to their death.

George’s escape route, a veritable Via Dolorosa lasting a week, takes him over the barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp, across the difficult terrain of the local countryside and along paths that intersect with villages and towns which contain people who may either help or betray him. George is a native of the region, so there are some people who know him and would help him if he came to them, while others who know him are too much in fear of the consequences to be prepared to extend a helping hand. His main problem is that he doesn’t know into which category any individual might fall. That is his constant dilemma.

Interspersed with graphic descriptions of the privations experienced by George are accounts of the course taken by the other escapees, all of whom are either captured or killed. The reader’s feelings are not spared when it comes to descriptions of the punishment meted out to those who are returned to the camp. The lives and emotions of the various individuals in the surrounding countryside are also described at length, and it is at times confusing as we try to disentangle exactly who and what each character is and where they stand with regard to George. But the general atmosphere is one of fear and suspicion, and that is the main point.

Alongside descriptions of a wide range of characters, we are also treated to a detailed account of the surrounding countryside, the activities of the various farmers and villagers, and the climate, with the ever-present mist rising from the nearby river, enveloping everything and determining what is seen and what is hidden. The female characters are mostly docile farmer’s wives or daughters whose main occupation is cooking, baking and tending to their household chores. The inner lives of the men who run the camps and are members of the Gestapo, the S.S. and the S.A. are also revealed to the reader with all their warped logic and justification of the unjustifiable.

Eventually one friend, motivated by their joint past as opponents of the Fascist ideology, undertakes to help George, even letting him stay in his home overnight. He arranges for George to be helped to escape the country, and it is with this that the book ends.

What is most amazing is that this book was written before the Second World War and published in 1942, when the was was raging, but the full extent of the Holocaust and all its attendant horrors was not yet known. It is not so much prescient as providing an accurate picture of the way terror and physical violence came to dominate the thinking and behaviour of people who would otherwise have continued to live peaceful and inoffensive lives, showing how an entire society could accept a perverted ideology and become subservient to the rule of terror and fear.

Shopping in Coronavirus Times

I wouldn’t say I’m a shopaholic, but I was brought up at a time and place where shopping was a regular feature of life. As a child I would be sent round the corner to the grocery store in Willesden Lane (which was no lane at all) to buy the loaf of rye bread my mother loved. On the way home I would gnaw the crust, and once I had handed the loaf over my mother would cut off the crust, spread it with butter and give it to me to eat like a civilized person, which made it rather less attractive. But I ate it anyway. When I was a bit older I would be sent to the greengrocer’s to ask for a pound of mushroom stems (a cheap substitute for whole mushrooms), with which my mother would prepare a delicious mushroom sauce.

Before every major Jewish festival our mother would take me and my two sisters to buy a dress or coat or shoes so that we would be suitably attired when we attended the services in synagogue. When we lived in Kilburn this meant marching to the end of Willesden Lane, then turning right into Kilburn High Road where the shop-fronts beckoned with myriad delights. I know that today Kilburn and its High Road are considered to be an area where it is not advisable to go alone, but in those days it was still borderline respectable.

My two younger sisters and I would gaze in fascination at the displays in the shop windows, imagining ourselves wearing the sequined evening dresses or warm, flowing coats, and vying to be the first to ‘bags’ (i.e., claim) possession of them. Eventually our mother would lead us into the local Marks and Spencer’s store, where each one of us would be suitably equipped with an item of clothing considered suitable for the season and the occasion. There was nowhere to try on what one had bought in those days, so it was rather a question of knowing one’s size as well as an element of hit and miss.

I don’t know how my parents could afford this constant outlay of money, as my father’s salary as the secretary of a Jewish charity was far from generous. I do know that he worked extra jobs in the evening at home, whether typing envelopes for other organizations or managing payments for another Jewish charity, so that they could buy extras. Our mother, with her nimble fingers, did her best to make clothes for us, but when it came to the festivals they felt it was necessary to make an extra effort.

In my teenage years we moved away from Kilburn to a leafy suburb on what was then the Bakerloo line of the underground, and is today served by the Jubilee line. Then our shopping expeditions took us far afield to Oxford Street, with all the delights that were to be found there. Of course, Marks and Spencer’s was still the mainstay of our outings, but the lure of the other shops could not be denied. And so we became familiar with the interiors and offerings of Selfridges, John Lewis, C&A and many other magical emporia. On the long journey home by tube we would clutch the colourful paper bags containing our purchases and our mother would finally be able to rest her aching feet.

When I moved to Israel I found that there were fewer shops and that the stock on offer was less tempting, but still there was always somewhere where I could occasionally go and try to find a new item of clothing. Whenever I managed to get to London, however, I would gravitate towards Oxford Street at least once, partly to satisfy my shopping needs and partly to relive the regular pilgrimages I used to make there with my mother and sisters.

Of course, I have been buying (and selling) books on Amazon for several years, but that’s a very different category of shopping.

Today, as we labour under the burden of the Coronavirus, all clothes shops are out of bounds as far as I’m concerned. Here in Israel I have no desire to venture into an enclosed place containing people I neither know nor trust, and especially not to try on an item of clothing which has been handled by any number of people.

So these days I do my shopping on line. After I ordered an item of clothing from good old Marks and Spencer’s it got into the habit of bombarding my email almost daily with offers and deals of various kinds. It’s almost like having Oxford Street at my fingertips which, like everything, has its advantages and its disadvantages.

Although I still long and hanker and crave for the day when I can resume my annual pilgrimage to Oxford Street, for the moment I’m prepared to assuage my thirst with what the internet has to offer.

‘How to Plan a Crusade; Religious War in the High Middle Ages’

This book, with its sixty pages of notes, twenty pages of bibliography, lavish illustrations and extensive index, is a thoroughly-researched study of events that took place between the late eleventh and mid-fourteenth centuries during which crusades were launched from Europe to the Levant. The author does not deal with the crusades chronologically, although he provides a list of dates and events at the beginning of the book. Rather, the book proceeds according to specific subjects in chapters devoted to them, such as Justification, Propaganda, Recruitment, Finance, Logistics, etc.

Furthermore, the level of detail in the book concerns every aspect of the broad topics covered. Thus, in the chapter on Logistics, we read how the boats that took the armies across the Mediterranean were constructed, and how they were adapted for the transportation of horses – an essential component of every fighting force at the time. Thus, as well as separate stalls in the ship’s hold, every stall contained a cloth cradle within which each horse would be strapped during the voyage, to prevent it from falling as the ship rolled.

I must admit that my knowledge of the various crusades was rather sketchy before I read this book. Now I know that the First Crusade, which succeeded in capturing Jerusalem from its Turkish rulers lasted from 1096 to 1099, was the result of preaching and instigation by the Pope and other clergy. This process culminated in the Council of Clermont, which proclaimed the Crusade, and set the wheels in motion for its execution, with the eventual establishment of crusader rule in the Levant. The Fifth and essentially final Crusade, which lasted from 1217 to 1221, ended in Muslim victory and the failure of the crusaders to recapture Jerusalem.

Where I live, just outside Jerusalem, there is a hilltop called Kastel with the remains of a Crusader castle, which in turn was built on top of a former Roman stronghold. In fact, throughout modern Israel (as well as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) there are remains of crusader castles and other edifices. I have toured the impressive halls once inhabited by the Templars which have been excavated in Acre, the last crusader stronghold before their defeat by Saladin’s successors in 1291. I have also visited the site of the battle of Hattin (Hittin in Hebrew) in Galilee, where Saladin routed the crusader forces in 1187, marking the beginning of the end of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thus, between 1099 and 1291 Christian forces ruled some or even most of what was known as the Holy Land, or Outremer for the French, establishing what was known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem with European rulers, benefiting from the local crops and other produce, trading with the countries of the region and interacting with the local population.

Organising a crusade involved a great deal of planning, such as prior knowledge of the geography of the various regions, the vagaries of possible land and sea routes, the need to find food and equipment for the troops, the nature of the indigenous populations of the countries on the route, and the necessity of negotiating treaties with the rulers of those regions. Prior to each successive crusade (there were five main ones, as well as several minor ones) various members of the clergy would embark on preaching tours throughout Europe to rally support among the local populace and set in process the arrarngements for amassing men, weapons and materiel for the promulgation of what was seen as a holy war to rescue the places sacred to Christians from the hands of infidels (i.e., Muslims).

Fired up by a combination of religious fervor, the promise of salvation and remission of sins, as well as the possibility of material gain, many thousands of the inhabitants of the countries of Europe gathered together to make their way to the ports or other points of departure for the Levant. The rulers of each country, supported by the local aristocracy, were also instrumental in the crusades, providing physical, financial and moral support for the venture. Taxation was an important element in the funding of each crusade, and in many instances the various monarchs used the opportunity to impose additional taxes on the local population, including the Jewish communities (whose property was often expropriated). The massive forces mustered sometimes attacked local populations, and this was especially so with regard to Jewish communities along the Rhineland (Worms, Wormaisa, Mainz), where large numbers of Jews were massacred.

The crusades were not limited to fighting against the Turks or whoever controlled the Holy Land. In 1208 what was known as the Albigensian Crusade was initated by the Pope against the Cathars in the Languedoc region of southern France who adhered to a different version of Christianity than the Catholicism of Western Europe. This resulted in the deaths of many thousands of the local population. Between 1239 and 1268 periodical ‘crusades’ were launched against the Hohenstaufen rulers of Germany and Sicily by rival German dukes. The various Popes were actively involved in the crusades, and usually also instigated them.

The overall picture one gets is that war was a way of life for all or most of Europe, which was on a war footing for a large part of the Middle Ages (and certainly beyond that, too). This can perhaps even be traced back to 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, massed forces, crossed the channel and invaded England. War seems to have been a way of life for large segments of the population, so that its promulgation, organization and implementation, as well as its sanction by the religious authorities, constituted an integral part of daily life, affecting every stratum of society. This was what determined the fates of millions of inhabitants of Europe for many centuries, even until quite recently.

One can only hope that the age of wars in Europe has now come to an end.

Speaking Out

In these difficult times Israel finds itself facing a fresh scandal on an almost daily basis. The latest was the bold statement made by the outgoing head of a hospital situated in the ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Braq, and hence treating primarily that population.

As a rule I prefer not to write about negative aspects of life in Israel, or to tackle political issues which are amply covered in the media. Given the current situation, however, matters seem to have got out of hand, and this bodes ill for the future.

In a radio interview to mark his departure, Professor Motti Ravid had some harsh things to say about the population he has been serving for the last twenty years. The views he expressed were essentially akin to those held by large segments of the general population in Israel, though because of political considerations they are not often voiced out loud by public officials.

The vast majority of Israel’s population is secular, or at most traditional. Some segments adhere to the full panoply of religious precepts, but they are a minority. Most Israelis are happy to mark the various festivals that punctuate the year with traditional observances such as lighting candles (Chanuka) or holding a token Seder and eating matza (Pesach), and that’s about as far as it goes. They still want to go to the sea or a national park on the Sabbath, eat out in all kinds of restaurants or drive to visit friends and relatives whenever it suits them. Living in Israel enables one to identify as Jewish without having to be observant.

When Israel was founded its first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, agreed to exempt a small quota of ultra-orthodox Jews from serving in the military. Since then the political clout wielded by ultra-orthodox politicians has extended that quota considerably, as well as managing to extort enormous sums from the government to support those communities, whose birth-rates are far higher than those of the general population.

And so today, in the middle of the twenty-first century, the general Israeli population finds itself supporting a huge and growing ultra-orthodox segment that has come to constitute a millstone round its neck. These groups of ultra-orthodox Jews cling to modes of behaviour, dress and religious observance that were current in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of them do not work, do not pay taxes, do not serve in the military, and thus benefit from the efforts of the rest of the population.

When restrictions were imposed on the entire country in order to stem the tide of coronavirus infections, several ultra-orthodox groups blatantly ignored the ban on large-scale gatherings by insisting on congregating together for mass prayers and festivities. The latest lockdown imposed on the country as a whole was in part due to their refusal to abide by these restrictions, as well as to their politicians’ threats to cease supporting the current government if the restrictions were imposed selectively on areas with a high proportion of ultra-orthodox residents, which is where infection rates are highest.

Thus, many ultra-orthodox groups appear to have made it part and parcel of their ethos to hold the rest of the country to ransom, and it was the good doctor, Professor Rabid, who pointed this out fairly and squarely, without quailing before the repercussions to his position and reputation.

Israel’s tragedy is that the current government, and especially the individual at its head, show themselves only too ready to kowtow to the threats and pressure exerted by the ultra-orthodox and their leaders.

Once the coronavirus is beaten and the world – Israel included – can return to normality of some kind, it will be time for a thorough reassessment of the values and political systems that have prevailed to date.