everything and nothing. not really sure yet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hello Hello

Well, it's been a very long time since I last posted - a lot has happened (both with me and with the world). But the good news is that I recovered my password, so now I can post for once.

And, now, for a headline that could be taken massively out of context:


But only about this.

And only partly.

This past February, as part of my gap year in Israel (Habonim Dror's Shnat Hachsharah - I guess I'll say more about this some other time), I travelled to Poland on a journey to explore the Holocaust and, particularly, the role of the Youth Movements and Jewish youth generally in taking responsibility over Jewish Polish society during such difficult times (perhaps I'll say more about this later - although I think most of what I'd like to say has already been said by my friends here). Part of this journey involved visiting Concentration Camps, such as Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Majdanek, the Treblinka site, the Plaszow site; visiting former ghettos and sites of uprising in Warsaw and Krakow; and other places of interest, such as a former shtetl (the name of which I have forgotten, it had a recently restored Synagogue), the Nazi sites of Lublin, the centre of Krakow and the former Jewish district of Krakow (Kazimierz).

In visiting Auschwitz I, the most famous (and therefore most visited) concentration camp, I was struck by something similar to what Irving talks about. Auschwitz feels like a Holcoaust theme park. There is something extremely unsettling about the way the museum has been put together - it does not feel real.

I would contrast this with Majdanek. Majdanek is in Lublin, in the East of Poland. It's harder to get to than Auschwitz. There's no real reason to go to Lublin, other than Majdanek. Krakow (near to Auschwitz), however, has a beautiful old city, full of history and culture. I would not come to Lublin as a tourist, only to see Majdanek. I would, however, go to Krakow as a tourist - even if I wasn't going to see Auschwitz. Lublin is a 6-hour coach drive from Krakow (it's a long way to travel by coach, trust me). Majdanek is much smaller than Auschwitz. Yet, partly because of this, it is preserved in a much more arresting and, frankly, 'real' way. When leaving most concentration camps and death camps, the Nazis destroyed everything they could (such as in Treblinka, where no original artifacts are left). At Majdanek, however, they were not afforded this luxury. They left in such a hurry, with the Soviet army approaching, that they did not destroy anything. Therefore, Majdanek still has original barracks. The crematorium stills stands, as does the bathtub next to the ovens, where the Camp Kommandant used the heat from the gassed corpses to warm his bath. Those parts of the camp that have either been curated (such as the barrack that has been filled with cages of shoes) feel altogether more real, less showy than those at Auschwitz I. Here it is immediate, close, you can touch it, smell it. The pile of human ash, housed by a huge mausoleum, is perhaps the most emotionally painful, arresting thing I have ever seen.

During my journey in Poland I recorded my thoughts mainly in the form of poems. Here is what I wrote after Auschwitz I:

Auschwitz I, a Tour

“Arbeit Macht Frei” reads the famous
Sign over the gate, but to even
Reach the entrance you have to
Walk through a building welcoming
You to “The Auschwitz Museum”.
And “Arbeit Macht Frei” points also
To the toilets, and you walk
Between solid brick barracks in
A respectful, mournful silence. Then
You enter a building where
People lived and died to see a
Display on The Final Solution, and
An inhuman pile of human hair,
In a room that held bodies –
Living corpses. But where did they
Keep the hair? The shoes? The
Suitcases? Why were they moved here,
Where they kept men – if you
Can even call them that? You exit
And stroll through the camp, passing
Poles on a day out to Oswiecim,
And you walk through a pre-
Prepared gap in the barbed
Wire, and wonder whether this
Really is Auschwitz, and not some
Holocaust-themed Amusement Park,
In some nondescript province of
Some nondescripts country, some
Fantasy, a stunt, a trick.
And then you enter the Crematorium.
You stand on the exact spot
Where someone stood at their
Death, and your heart jumps
And falls and shatters as
You stand in front of the
Ovens, where men were returned
To dust, and your soul
Sings a tuneful Kaddish as
You go back outside. Do you
Feel absolved?

Whereas here is what I wrote after Majdanek:


The house is square and quaint,
White and rural, and, as I
Stare up, the ghost of a child
Stares out, out towards the maze
Of barbed wire, Barracks and spilt
The camp. Majdanek. It breathes
Across the frozen air and cuts
Silence and flesh. Lublin City Buses
Drive, mundane and apathetic, past
The Crematorium and the Gas
Chamber and commuters shuttle
To any other work in any other
But this is not any other place.
I close my eyes and see barbed
Wire, I open them and I see
Shoes and ovens and the bath
They heated, and I want to be
Immersed, again, in a Mikveh of
Ignorance, free from this weight,
This pain.
And then a mountain of ash
Rises above it all, the twisted
Forgotten remnants of the blended
Thousands, the dust of man, a
Tragedy, an evil.
Evil it is, and men, women and
Children were killed as Cain killed
Abel, pliant, supple specimens of victimhood.
And amid all this horror and pain
And wire that cuts my eyes. I
Say a silent prayer to humanity
And its God, for goodness and light
And an answer to the question of
And the sun sets.

I think Irving is right to say that too much attention is paid to Auschwitz, and it has become a major source of income for the local area. This is where visiting sites of historical and emotional interest, in order to seek understanding, can slide into the sort of generic "Holocaust tourism" that so angers the likes of Avrum Burg, for instance. I don't think, however, that Irving really gets it. He's now going to run tours to other "Nazi sites", taking part in the generic consumption of the Holocaust and World War 2 that he's always been involved in. Rather than focus on "hey, look, this is where Hitler lived" and "hey, look, this is where Operation Reinhard (which, of course, as Irving's younger self would pop out and tell you, is all American-Jewish-Zionist-Communist propoganda) was conducted from", you should try and get to the bottom of what the Holocaust really was, how it happened, how it was allowed to happen, and how the Jews lived (in some cases passively, in some cases through active resistance) under it.

Coming up next time on Trilby Hats and Coffee: a new series, Shit That Really Pissed Me Off (Ground Zero edition).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On guns and whatnot

UPDATE: The Senate voted down the amendment by only 2 votes, with some pretty interesting organisation on the part of the Democratic leadership, allowing Democrats from more conservative states to break ranks without allowing the amendment to pass

Senator John Thune (R-like he could be anything else-South Dakota) has introduced an amendment to allow concealed firearms to be carried across state lines - in the NYT's words, it "would nullify the laws of almost every state". Now, let us assume, for argument's sake, that the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution: ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" - capitalisation and punctuation varies) actually allows for individuals to keep guns and not just the collective "people" vis a vis the military. It still does not make sense to reduce the amount of regulation involved in a deadly weapon. Let's take an analogy that most conservatives probably will hate - abortion. Abortion is protected under the constitution - that's the position of the Supreme Court. However, it still needs to be regulated to ensure that all abortions performed are safe. It's the same with guns - if they're allowed, they should be regulated to help keep them off the streets.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sarah Palin, or wtf? Alaska Edition

I haven't really written much about American politics recently - mostly due to the absence of an upcoming election and the feeling that there are plenty of people out there writing pieces supporting the President and what he's doing, so we really don't need another one (although I admit that I'm writing this wearing my "I heart Barack Obama" t-shirt). However, recent goings on in Alaska are almost impossible to avoid, so, some thoughts about Sarah Palin's resignation:

- A bit eerie that she resigns just after Vanity Fair publishes this piece by Todd Purdum, essentially ripping her apart.

- What really struck me about her speech was just how odd her logic is. She states that she's "not wired to operate under the same old 'politics as usual'", which in the context she defines as how "some governors ... accept ... lame duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck, and 'milk it'", yet surely the best way of proving you're not a 'typical politician' is to continue doing the job the voters of Alaska voted you in for and govern. Is she saying that if she was a "lame duck" she wouldn't be able to resist all the "typical" travelling and trade missions (not that there seems to be anything wrong with trade missions from where I'm sitting)? That's not a great message as far as her character is concerned. Is she saying that she wouldn't want to run for President for two years and therefore leave Alaskans without their permanent Governor (as early as it is vis a vis 2012)? Then why was she ok with running for VP while keeping her Governorship?

- You stand for governor because you think you're the best suited to govern your state, what does it say if you walk away from it because you know you're not running for re-election? Also, if she ran for and won the presidency, would she then resign from office when she became a lame duck? Leave it all to the VP maybe, like she's done with her Lieutenant Governor.

- There's been lots of talk of reasons for this move, including suggestions that she's getting out of politics altogether. My feeling is that, if the Vanity Fair piece is an accurate reflection of the Palin camp and its approach, this would seem to fit in well with her warped political posturing. I'm almost slightly worried that, somewhere in the bizarro world that is Palin-ville, they think that resigning from office is just the right approach to starting a campaign for president 3 1/2 years before the election.

- Remember that this is a woman who kept a pregnancy secret until she hit her 3rd trimester, and then flew across the country while in labour ie crazy seems to come with the territory.

- This piece on Slate.com makes a lot of sense - it just doesn't seem a good idea to run for the presidency without a firm and current base of authority.

- There might be another scandal brewing, but I'd prefer to think that she was sick of the pressure of being the USA's main line of defense against Vladimir Putin.

- If this is the best the GOP have got, they are even more screwed than previously imagined.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Melanie Phillips' Bandwagon of Hate

Last week, I opened my Jewish Chronicle to discover Melanie Phillips in true form, spouting what seemed at best to be misrepresentations of the truth, and, at worst, complete falsehoods. Here is my response in the form of a letter to the editor that the JC did not publish (note: I found virtually every point in Phillips' piece disagreeable, but here I have concentrated on the factually incorrect, rather than engaging with her 'analysis' - if you can call it that):

In her recent JC piece, Obama’s deadly hand revealed, Melanie Phillips is guilty of making unsubstantiated, factually incorrect and, at times, borderline-racist comments and assertions. She states that “Among American Jews, a degree of buyer’s remorse has been detected recently”, yet she provides no evidence to support this claim – perhaps because it has little basis in reality.

Phillips states that Obama has “torn up the Road Map which requires the Palestinians to dismantle their infrastructure of terror”, which calls into question whether she has actually read the President’s “Cairo shocker of a speech”. If she had, she would have noted his assertion that “the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear … Palestinians must abandon violence … it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on the bus” – it is difficult to imagine a more vocal or powerful call for an end to Palestinian terror.

Obama stated that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied” – hardly a crowd pleaser in Cairo, and he went on to strongly condemn anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment (“threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong”, hardly “fight[ing] against any condemnation of the theologically based Jew-hatred pouring out of the Islamic world” as Phillips maintains). There is nothing factually incorrect in the above statement about the Jewish people’s “tragic history” – surely the enforced exile and loss of independence would come under this, alongside the Inquisition, Pogroms and the Shoah.

Phillips states that Obama was “sanitising Islam through false claims about its historic achievements and selective and misleading quotation from the Koran”. This implies that Islam is not ‘sanitary’, or even is evil – a rather odd mirroring of the “Jew-hatred” to which Phillips refers, but with “Muslim” replacing “Jew”. She seems to be denying “civilisation’s debt to Islam”, forgetting that while Europe was in the ‘Dark Ages’ the works of Plato and Aristotle were being taught in Muslim universities, and that Maimonides himself lived all his life in the Muslim world. Phillips seems to let her paranoia get ahead of her in saying that Obama’s use of the word “revealed” is an “acknowledgement of divine revelation … the language of the believer”, apparently implying, though not proving that “Obama is really a Muslim”, rather than being a simple example of cultural awareness.

Phillips states that Obama is “pro-Islamist”, yet there is a distinction between showing respect for Islam (the religion of over a billion people) and supporting a particular, violent political philosophy. In fact, Obama stated that America will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security” – hardly encouraging for the likes of al Qaeda.

That Phillips has written such an ill-informed piece, using talking points cribbed from the fringes of the right-wing blogosphere, is not surprising. That the JC has published this is, however, disappointing – it is the extremist opinions of the likes of Phillips that are the greatest impediment to peace and the safeguarding of a secure State of Israel.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


This came on the radio today, and I was reminded of how good the video is:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Problem With PR

What with the current uproar over MPs expenses and Parliament's apparent loss of trust, many are now using the opportunity to call for wholesale change of the electoral system, replacing the first-past-the-post constituency based system with proportional representation. Frankly, a change to full PR would seem to be a backward step. Without the link to the constituencies, there will be no individual group of voters to whom MPs are accountable. Therefore, in the case of the expenses scandal, MPs would be held accountable only to their parties, which may or may not remove them from the party list - taking the decision out of the public's hands. Take a look at countries which have a PR system, and they are clearly far less stable, politically, than the UK. Israel is the case in point, where coalition governments are rarely stable (a problem only exacerbated by the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Israeli-Arab conflicts), and political patronage and corruption are rife. This is not to say that the first-past-the-post system is perfect or even the best possible system, far from it, but it would seem counter-intuitive to reduce accountability when it is exactly that lack of accountability that is at issue here. Additionally, in a full party-list PR system, the BNP would most probably enter parliament. It would seem that a multi-member constituency system, perhaps using a Single Transferable Vote method like that used in the London Mayoral elections would be more appropriate - it would increase representation within parliament (surely a problem when a party can gain a large, workable majority in parliament with between 30 and 40 percent of the popular vote), whilst maintaining accountability and, in fact, providing a much more interesting electoral system (certainly more exciting than the current voting process).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

On the Shoah and the Afterlife

A couple of days ago, I was in the midst of an argument with three friends - an Atheist (J) a Muslim (H) and a Christian (E) - about G-d, religion and whatnot (for most of the argument I was more of an observer than a participator - holding neither the position of my Theist friends nor my Athiest friend - and was, if anything, arguing against everyone). There came a stage in the argument when it turned to the Afterlife. H was arguing that there would be a stage where J would realise that he was wrong, when he is presented in front of angels/jesus christ, and that he would not be judged badly for having been an atheist. J naturally argued that that was bullshit. H then called J's position pessimistic - saying that those who died in the Holocaust deserved an afterlife (the fact that both J and I are, at least technically speaking, Jewish probably informed the choice of example). This was a point that even J had to concede - he wished there was an afterlife, in order that the victims of the Shoah did not die in vain (although he went on to say that there just wasn't one). I disagreed with both of them, however, it took me a few hours to realize exactly what it is that I found not only wrong, but offensive about the suggestion.
I think that there not being an afterlife (at least not in the Heaven, everyone's in paradise lying naked with virgins feeding them grapes, sense) is extremely important for illustrating and recognizing what an extreme crime the Shoah - and, indeed, all murder - was. If there is a heaven, then the deaths of the victims of the Shoah will not only be meaningful, they will actually have been a 'good thing' (they will be in a better place). This excuses Hitler and the Germans of any real guilt - if anything, they will have been doing a public service by killing so many. The fact - as I see it - that the deaths of the Shoah were wasted life shows the monstrous nature of the crime; without that waste, no killing can be seen as an inherently bad thing. It demonstrates the extent of humanity's barbarism, or at least potential barbarism, and shows exactly what it is that we should be working against. If those who die innocent go to heaven, there is no point in preventing current or future genocides - such as Darfur. If anything, by preventing the genocide, you would actually be doing a bad thing - preventing people from reaching Paradise.
I think there is another problem with the view that, this life being temporary, the next life will be more permanent. This essentially views life as we know it as a sort of playground - it is devalued. Whatever we do in this life, there will be something else afterwards. We can bomb and rape and pillage each other to a pulp, and it will not really matter, because there's something else - something better - coming later.
I'm not saying that there definitely is no afterlife - how can anyone possibly know that?. What I am saying is that I would rather people did not try to find positive 'meaning' in horrible crimes, for which the only real 'meaning' is that they demonstrate the sort of evils we should be working against. If you consider this to be pessimistic, fine. I don't care whether you call it pessimistic, optimistic, apathetic or anything, it does not change the substance of the argument - it does not make what I have said any less relevant.