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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

American Optimism and Foreignness in Japan

The traditional year-end double issue of The Economist is always a source of immense reading pleasure. This year’s issue is no different. I’m still half-way through the issue, but a couple of items seem worth mentioning – one is about American optimism, the other about being a foreigner in Japan.

Lexington, the columnist for the United States section, reviews two books that “lament the American tendency towards mindless optimism”. One book is by Barbara Ehrenreich, who is angry about the overly positive attitude that permeates American society and encourages people to deny reality. People with cancer speaking about it as a “gift” that helped them find their purpose in life. Or people who believe that food won’t make you fat unless you think it will. The second book is by John Derbyshire, who quips that hardly anyone in Obama’s cabinet has ever created a dime of wealth, yet most Americans expects them to fix the economy. He has nothing but contempt for those who say that “given the opportunity, most people could do most anything”, pointing out that, mathematically, half of the people are below average.

What a refreshing breath of air! Finally someone who dares tear the cover off the nauseating “think positive” attitude that invades every corner of American culture, most recently epitomised by the mindboggling drivel in the best-selling, self-help book “The Secret”, by Rhonda Byrne.

Elsewhere, the topic of “being an outsider” is examined, and the different ways in which it has become both easier and more difficult to be a foreigner in another country are discussed. The following passage made me smile, bringing back pleasant memories:

The most generally satisfying experience of foreignness—complete bafflement, but with no sense of rejection—probably comes still from time spent in Japan. To the foreigner Japan appears as a Disneyland-like nation in which everyone has a well-defined role to play, including the foreigner, whose job it is to be foreign. Everything works to facilitate this role-playing, including a towering language barrier. The Japanese believe their language to be so difficult that it counts as something of an impertinence for a foreigner to speak it.

I’m sure my wife, who has mastered Japanese, will enjoy reading this last sentence. It is so true.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

It’s All in the Eyes

Molitan is a factory that produces sewing threads. It is located in the northern city of Nahariya, Israel, and employs about 80 people.

The employees have not received their salaries for two months now, and the main creditor bank refuses to loan the factory 1.5 million Shekels (about $400,000) to pay these salaries. Many of the employees are single mothers or above fifty, and if the factory closes down (which currently looks likely) they will have a very hard time finding a job. Unemployment in northern Israel is about 9%, compared with only 6% in the Tel Aviv area.

This really isn’t news. Stories like these are a dime a dozen in these harsh economic times. What prompted me to write about it was this picture, taken by Yaron Kaminsky and published in Haaretz. It’s all in the eyes: the fear, the helplessness, the desperation.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Crocodile Tears

A week ago the Israeli government buckled under US pressure and declared a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank, in the hope this will revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Almost nobody here believes that this “confidence building” step will amount to much, but the West Bank settlers have nevertheless come out in full force against the implementation of the government decision. Several of them clashed with police yesterday, and their leaders have announced they will continue to oppose the decision. I heard an interview on the radio yesterday with a woman settler that was almost in tears describing the effects of this ban and how her children have no school to go to because one cannot be constructed, or how newly-wed couples have nowhere to live.

I think that giving in to US pressure at this point was wrong, as there is clearly nobody on the other side with which serious peace discussions can take place. Currently, the Palestinians carry a heavier burden of proof than the Israelis about their intention to reach an agreement. I’m not surprised about the decision though; Netanyahu has proven, time and again, that he succumbs to pressure alarmingly quickly, with little or no thought about his “ideology” or the consequences.

But despite being against this decision, I admit to feeling some satisfaction watching the settlers squirm and cry foul. Their very presence is rooted in decades-long illegality. It was one of the factors that prevented the possibility of an agreement with the Palestinians when one was within reach. Worst of all, it is the single biggest threat to Israel’s long-term existence as Jewish country, by forcing a single state reality with an Arab majority. I am no fan of the Palestinians and the manner in which they are conducting their so-called “struggle for independence”, but I know Israel needs them to have their own state if it wants to survive. The settlements are a clear obstacle to this strategic goal.

As for the tears of the woman on the radio: they are nothing but crocodile tears. After 42 years of holding the vast majority of Israelis hostage to their delusional ideology, it is time for the settlers to face reality and come back home to Israel. Or, better yet, remain where they are and become citizens of a Jewish minority in the future Palestine.