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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Magdeburg, Germany

I was in Germany last week on business and spent a night in Magdeburg, a medium-sized city (population ~210,000) in former Eastern Germany. It was my first time ever beyond the old “iron curtain” and I was curious to see if I would note any differences from the Germany I know on the Western side.

The differences were minimal. Indeed, had I not known Magdeburg used to be part of Eastern Germany I would not have been able to tell the difference from any other German city. There are almost no remnants from those days. Communist street names have been all changed, I did not see any Trabant cars (I was really hoping to get a glimpse of one) and even the socialist-looking buildings from the FDR era were mostly renovated and blended in with the new architecture. Perhaps only the wide avenues , once grounds for May Day parades, gave an indication this city was part of the Communist Block a mere 16 years ago. Oh, and the fact that hardly anybody spoke or understood English.

Over dinner, our hosts told us more about the city. Apparently, when the Berlin wall came down the population of Magdeburg was almost 300,000. Local industry was mostly composed of mom & pop factories, producing widgets that nobody had use to once the old regime collapsed. Over the course of the 90s the population dwindles by almost a third and unemployment rose to the highest level in Germany, about 20%. In the past few years the authorities are trying to redefine the city as an academic center. There are two universities, a conservatorium and several research institutes.

After dinner we were taken for a short drive around Magdeburg, which this year is celebrating its 1,200 anniversary. The cathedral is an imposing structure, built by the Catholics but used, soon after its completion and to this day, by the Reformists. The Americans spared this magnificent piece of medieval architecture when they bombed the city in January 1945. REM recently gave an open-air concert in the square facing the cathedral. The river Elbe crosses the city and the numerous bridges provide pleasant views of this tranquil city.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Orange vs. Blue

We are in Israel for a month or so for a summer vacation. These are exciting times in Israel, less than a month away from the Gaza disengagement, the first time an Israeli government will displace Jews from their homes. The Knesset voted today against the motions calling for a delay in the plan execution, and all seems set for the big showdown in mid August.

One of the most striking public displays of this buildup, at least the one which immediately drew my attention upon arriving here earlier this week, is the orange vs. blue "ribbon war". Those against the disengagement have long ago chosen orange as the colour symbolising their opposition: orange t-shirts, orange flags, orange banners and, most prominently, orange ribbons attached to car antennas. In a somewhat late response, the other side chose blue as their colour. So while driving around one gets to see many ribbons flapping in the wind.

Most of these ribbons are, I hate to admit, orange. But my wife says that the cars with no ribbon at all (i.e. most cars) represent the "silent majority", those who are in favour of the disengagement plan but are too lazy or cannot be bothered to "flap" their opinion in public. I hope she's right.

I am now looking for a blue ribbon for my rental car...

Saturday, July 09, 2005

France - The Malaise Continues

I was in Paris last week for a couple of days, arriving a few hours before the announcement of the Olympic Games Committee that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games. On my way from the airport the news on the radio were almost exclusively focused on the imminent decision, with live reports from Singapore on the French presentation, the highlights of which were a film about Paris directed by Luc Besson and an emotional speech given by Jacques Chirac about the merits of the French capital.

During my morning meetings the tension was palpable. By lunchtime, the shortlist was down to London and Paris, and the conversation around the table touched on the generations-old rivalry between the two countries straddling the English Channel. Needless to say, the obvious clich├ęs about the gaps in food quality and esprit de corps were the main course.

By early afternoon, when the announcement was made, the mood changed. Some shrugged the whole thing off as being unimportant and said they opposed the whole thing from the beginning anyway (“who wants all those foreigners invading Paris and creating traffic jams in the height of summer?”). Others blamed the whole thing on politics; this was nothing but a way to get back at France for rejecting the referendum on the EU constitution last month. Yet others said this was all too predictable, another milestone in the long string of French failures on the global stage in recent years. After all, this is the third consecutive time Paris has competed and lost for the bid to host the Olympic Games.

To me, this whole story is yet another symptom of the sickness France has been suffering from in the past decade or so, a general air of malaise the roots of which are hard to pinpoint but which everyone agrees is clearly there. The general sentiment is that anything that can go wrong, will indeed go wrong. The feeling that no matter what France does or says, the world will, at best, misunderstand or in the worst case shrug off as irrelevant. The list is long: France’s stance on the Iraq war, its hesitant position regarding the enlargement of the EU community and Turkey’s candidacy, the awkward balance between a “social” economic policy and the required “capitalist” measures so sorely needed to revive the economy and the belated and hotly contested steps taken against the Muslim minority (the so-called “Chador law”). The feeling is that everything is breaking down and the country is not going anywhere.

My personal experience this week (although it can hardly be representative), confirms this last feeling. I took two taxis during my short stay, and both could not find their way to the destination without problems. The first driver, once we finally arrived, also could not get the credit card machine to work. Both blamed everything but themselves for not doing their job properly: the road signs, the bad advice of other drivers, the non-functioning GPS system... A Swedish colleague of mine, who was unfortunate enough to share one of these rides with me, said this was a “known thing” in Europe: French taxi drivers simply do not know their way around. As far as I’m concerned, at least one of the systems in France is most definitely broken down.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Legacy of the Settlers

I usually refrain from writing about politics in Israel, avoiding in particular the current debate regarding the Gaza disengagement plan. But after last week's lynching of a Palestinian by Jewish teenagers, the "high point" of a week of daily violence from the "orange" side of the spectrum, I feel compelled to post here an op-ed piece Uzi Benziman in Ha'aretz. Benziman simply tells it the way it is.

Not an isolated spectacle

By Uzi Benziman (Ha'aretz July 3, 2005)

The recent events in Gush Katif are a clear reflection of the settlers' grasp of Judaism: First you take over an abandoned Palestinian house, then set a mezuzah in it and declare it as Jewish property. Then you hold prayer sessions and Hasidic dancing in it. Later you provoke the Palestinian neighbors - an act that leads to stone throwing and ends with attempts by Jewish youths to stone to death an unconscious Palestinian teen.

This, in a nutshell, is the story of the Israeli takeover of the territories since 1967: seizing foreign lands, vindicating the robbery in the name of halakha and the right of the forefathers, creating friction and causing violent confrontations with the Palestinian neighbors, using force to ensure the hold on the new properties and relying on the state's powerful security apparatuses to eliminate the Palestinians' resistance to the injustice inflicted on them.

The sanctimonious rhetoric accompanying last Wednesday's attempted lynch at the Tal Yam outpost is typical of the entire settlement project. (Pasting Hebrew names, usually biblical, on outposts and communities in the territories, is part of the process of converting them to Judaism.) MK Shaul Yahalom called on the public in Israel and the world to believe that the thugs who stoned Hilal Ziyad Majaida were not religious Jews, they were only dressed up that way. Other settler leaders, some of whom sounded sincerely shocked by what they had seen, also said things to that effect.

We may assume that at least some of the settlers' leaders, rabbis and political representatives are sincerely disgusted with the murderous behavior of the hilltop youth and the Kahane youth who gathered in the hotel in Neveh Dekalim. If this is so, a few truths should be made clear to them: The settlement project has turned into an institute for contemporary Judaism. This is the assembly line that produces the neo-Jew or the neo-Israeli believer.

The settlers came to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and forced their view on the feeble Israeli governments (throughout the generations) in the name of a primordial right, taking over territories that were not theirs and usurping the Palestinian residents of their rights and lands. The state, after being dragged into this manipulation, retroactively backed it. It then found itself painted into a
corner from which it was obliged to support the project with quasi-legal military and security tricks. This is how the Jewish enclave in Hebron was established in `68, followed by most of the 122 settlements and 105 illegal outposts. The process, a fundamentally distorted act of government, was politically stupid, immoral and inhumane, and it created dynamics whose inevitable results are, among other things, along the lines of the spectacle that shocked Yahalom last week.

From the outstart, deranged and radical people accumulated in a few communities in the territories. The violent friction with the Palestinians created conditions that unleashed the animal in man. Whether or not these were the causes, the outburst of the skinheads in Gush Katif last Wednesday was not a rare spectacle. The history of the settlements is full of killing and robbery, disgraceful violations of the rights of the Palestinian neighbors and trampling on their dignity.

The Talia Sasson report is filled with examples of law violations on the part of the settlers, their collaborators in the state and the politicians above it. This air of lawlessness derives from the original sin - the urge to settle in the territories - and provides the petri dish for murderous urges, as displayed in the Machpela Cave massacre, the murder of innocent farmers, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the attempted lynch in Gush Katif.

The settlers reject this description. They see their settlement in the West Bank and Gaza as an implementation of the Jewish nation's right to its forefathers' land. They justify the contradiction between their motives and the fatal, corrupting consequences as the isolated acts of "wild weeds." This is their mistake. Even taking into consideration the Palestinians' contribution to the conflict, even taking care not to generalize and being aware of the humaneness of many settlers, there is no escape from the conclusion. The settlement project has created the circumstances that generate the terrible acts carried out by the state and by individuals, in the name of the Jews' right to a national home.