Monday, July 23, 2012 Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The English, Forever Strangers

Separated from my land of birth, childhood, and maturation, the United Kingdom, I have been living and working on a kibbutz in northern Israel for the past three months. Though I came in search of perspective on the great unanswered questions that continue to plague the Jewish state, as it transpires time away from one’s homeland, residing in a country that cares little for your affairs, cannot help but offer a fresh outlook on the state of my own nation and its people. “Stepping back to look at the face / Leaves a little space in the way like a window”, Stephen Sondheim once phrased it – “It’s the only way to see”.

Within a fairly short period of time, it has become clear just how insignificant a country the United Kingdom presently is, with regard to its domestic politics and its role in wider global affairs. The ups and downs of this year’s pathetic presidential pony show are covered well in Israel’s English language press, and yet news from Britain goes unreported and uncovered unless it pertains in some way to the larger crisis in the Eurozone. Although the UK retains a place at the top table in most international forums, the British people inflated by imperial nostalgia believe their country maintains a position in the geopolitical landscape that, in reality, it has not had for some decades.

With the rise during the latter half of the twentieth century of the United States and Russia, and the continued accession presently of China, Brazil, and India, the United Kingdom has suffered from relative decline economically and militarily which has impacted the image people from overseas possess of the British. No longer are we judged by the products we export, the wars we have won, the nations we have conquered (for the better, on that point), or more recently the peoples we have helped defend and liberate. Rather, it seems foreign peoples are more fascinated by our culture: not only our television and our music, but also the foods we eat, sports we play, and drinks we imbibe.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012 Friday, April 6, 2012

An American Education, or Why Peter Beinart is Wrong

I choose to believe, given Peter Beinart sends his own children to a Jewish day school, that his recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is well-meaning. Beinart’s angst seems heartfelt and altogether sincere when he observes that parents who elect to send their offspring to privately-funded Jewish schools in the United States “are often asked to pay top dollar for schools with makeshift gymnasiums and antiquated science labs”.

In order to plug the funding gap which philanthropy alone cannot fill so that religious schools might “flourish”, Beinart’s solution is for the federal government to provide “substantial aid to religious schools”, picking up “pick up part of the tab” for those who wish to give their children a Jewish or indeed any sort of religious education. This approach strikes me has highly irregular, counterproductive, and in the longer term a grave threat to the unique American separation between church and state.

Beinart praises the Jewish schools of Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Indeed, here in the United Kingdom we do possess many first-rate Jewish schools, such as the Jews’ Free School in north London or Beis Yaakov High School in Manchester, which receive government monies (38 in number as of 2011, or 0.19% of all state-funded schools in the country). The schools cited are labelled as voluntary aided schools, where the state employs the staff and sets admissions criteria, but the buildings are owned by the charitable foundation which has a great deal of influence regarding how the institution is run – a model I sense Beinart may favour.

In the United Kingdom, faith schools are largely Christian in character: 22.88% of state schools for run by the Church of England; 10% by the Roman Catholic Church. Places in these schools are oft in great demand in catchment areas across the country. Regarded for their academic attainment and educational rigour, the phenomenon of competitive secular parents appearing at Sunday Mass for the sake of their kids is sadly not uncommon.

But above-average levels of accomplishment or an ostensible sense of religious pluralism does not make the funding of faith schools by national governments correct or just. The very notion of state funding for religious schools is antithetical to the basic principles of public education, which ought to be accessible to and actively encourage interaction between children of different races, religions, and social strata. By their very nature, faith schools are exclusionary, since they discourage admission of those who do not share in the faith of that institution.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

I think it is worth reminding ourselves, following his by-election victory in Bradford West — described as historic, spectacular, and a revolution by himself — just what a cheap guttersnipe and disgusting little toad George Galloway is. I have made my views on the man plain, when I previously described him as “a slug and a slimeball, a harlot, a fifth column allied to autocrats in the Middle East nestled in our politics, and a friend of the most barbarous and brutal dictators”. Nothing has happened in the past few months, or during his divide and conquer campaign in a city already Balkanised along racial and religious lines, to dissuade me of this characterisation. Posting his video also gives us a chance to watch Christopher Hitchens in action, a gentleman whom I find myself missing often.

(Source: youtube.com)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Considering France’s Strategic Vision: An Essay

TOULOUSE – Lunchtime on any given sunny Thursday in the centre of Toulouse perfectly encapsulates everything Anglo-Saxons envy about the seemingly-idyllic French mode de vie. In the middle of the working day, employees take off an hour or oftentimes more to enjoy a two-course formule du midi or a seasonal plat du jour on a picturesque square like Place St. Georges, all for under $25 including a glass of cold, crisp white wine, locally sourced of course.

When contrasted with the ugly way in which workers in London and New York unhinge their jaws in order to swallow whole pre-packaged sandwiches on the dash back to the office – all in the name of additional, precious trading nanoseconds – the more languid and dare it be said chic Gallic lunch is made to seem all the more desirable.

And why ever not? I am not one to suggest for a moment that the French need to give this practice up, for it does sit rather well with me. Nor should they be required to surrender the practice of retreating from the cities during the month of August when they become veritable sweatboxes. But the Anglo-Saxon with a mild bout of indigestion can at least take some comfort in the fact that said Gallic lunch is a milder expression of all that is wrong with the present state of the French economy and society, one which is stumbling blindly towards a condition of stagnation and sclerosis.

Zbigniew Brzezinski neatly summarises the state of play in his bright if occasionally problematic new work, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. When addressing the subject of Europe, its position in the world, and relative decline since 1973 in comparison to the United States, Brzezinski asserts that the continent has become “too self-satisfied”, and that it acts “as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (Brzezinski 2012, 36).

One of the faults with Brzezinski’s work is over-generalisation. Evidently, state largesse is not a continent-wide problem. The United Kingdom government, for example, has recently embarked on a series of austerity measures that seek to scale down the size of the welfare bill as a proportion of government expenditure. And, in Germany, the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s also restricted access to state benefits, reducing the claimant period for the full unemployment allowance to in the most part 12 months, down from 36.

Rather, when Brzezinski references “Europe” in the abstract, he clearly has in mind the profligate nations of Catholic Europe, as it were: those nations like Italy and Spain with bloated deficits and engorged welfare states. Though it has not suffered as awfully as these other Mediterranean states, France could just as easily be indicted for the crime of wanting to become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home”. It is a country which, in the immediate, is suffering the consequences of having a weighty and immobile public sector at a time when the economy needs to be nimble and agile in order to recover and renew itself in this globalised era of interconnectedness and economic interdependence.

Her extensive state structures which own sizeable chunks of ostensibly private companies and employ directly 5.3 million workers, or 20% of the labour force, allowed France to buffet the worst of a recession which destroyed other economics more exposed to massive fluctuations in the health of the private sector. But as the United States is pulling itself out of the doldrums, albeit ever-so-slowly, and the Germans are experienced their lowest rates of unemployment since unification in 1990, the French economy is struggling to pick up steam whilst the rest of the continent suffers the consequences of the single currency and sovereign debt crises.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Out of Israel, Viewing the Falklands Through a Dirty Lens

Israel, it should be remembered, was alleged by Israel Lotersztain (a salesman for Isrex, an Israeli defence company in Argentina) in Hernan Dobry’s 2011 book Operation Israel: The Reaming of Argentina During The Dictatorship to have supplied armaments to Argentina in the months prior to the illegal Falklands invasion of April 1982. The JTA reported that such shipments included “air-to-air missiles, fuel tanks for fighter bombers, gas masks and missile radar alert systems, as well as warm ‘dubonim’ jackets”.

Bear this in mind when reading Hagai Segal’s brief op-ed in Ynet on the Falklands. It makes for curious reading for myriad reasons, not least among them its stunning inaccuracies and brazen, foolhardy, and hucksterish mischaracterisation of the dual statuses of the Islands and the West Bank. He argues thus:

Her Majesty’s government dislikes our presence in an area of merely 6,000 square kilometres, a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem, yet allows itself to occupy an area that is twice as large, located tens of thousands of kilometres away from London.

This is no time to go into the moral, legal, and ethical arguments behind the soon-to-be 45-year occupation of the West Bank by Israel (and, I have had my thoughts and feelings on the subject clear in a number of forums), save to say that Segal is clearly of a school which does not believe his country’s activities east of the Green Line to be in any way iffy, at all.

Segal terms the British victory in the 1982 war a “reoccupation”, but it would serve the author well to read even a slight history of the conflict, in order to correctly determine who exactly the occupying power was. After all, the residents of the Falkland Islands were in 1982 and are in 2012 British by nationality, ethnic heritage, language, religion, and culture. The phone boxes on the Islands are red; the Islanders purchase their groceries from Waitrose and water at a pub called The Globe. As an Argentinian documentary maker recently put it, “There is nothing Argentinian about the islands. The people eat fish and chips, they have dinner at 6pm — they’re British”.

Argentina, by contrast, was in 1982 controlled by a military junta which was in the throngs of conducting a violent, “dirty war” against its own citizenry, resulting in the disappearance of some 13,000 left-wing activists, students, and journalists – simply, anyone deemed an irritant to the dictatorship. Its invasion of British sovereign territory was carried out clandestinely at first by Argentinian scrap metal workers on the isle of South Georgia, and then by ground forces on the main islands, whose legacy is the scores of landmines which still dust the landscape. Segal’s government may allegedly have had no qualms in supplying military aid to General Galtieri, but if I were him, I’d at least try to be a little contrite, and avoid such reckless attempts at moral equivalence.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A call for a liberal stimulus

The economy is flat-lining. The data which emerged today demonstrated that the United Kingdom’s GDP grew by only 0.2pc – at, as near as makes little difference, a stagnant rate. This pace of increase (if you can call it an increase) is all the more worrying when taken within the context of the previous two quarters, when the 0.5pc growth from January-March 2011 was cancelled out by a 0.5pc fall during the previous quarter, October-December 2010.

In other words, in the last nine months, our nation’s economy has basically grown by 0.2pc. The whole thing is moribund, and it reflects badly on the government’s present fiscal stubbornness. Make no mistake: it is correct that George Osborne pursues these cuts, but it is clear that attempts to raise revenues through spending reductions in the tax code have hindered growth in the private sector.

This is fatal, since an expansion of the market was intended to be the miracle elixir which saved the country as we reduced the size of the public sector. Moreover, if this stagnancy in the private sector continues into the latter half of the year, we risk being left behind our European partners, even as they struggle to tackle their mutual currency crisis. Note that in the first quarter of this year, as we equalised our losses in Q4 of 2010, France grew by 0.9pc and Germany 1.5pc.

What is surely called for then, at this critical juncture, is a small concession from the Conservative government, what might best be phrased as a short-term liberal stimulus. This would consist of some form of tax cut which seeks to boost the economy by empowering the individual and increasing their spending power.

Not only would such a move be more ideologically preferable than any kind of Keynesian jobs programme or further bout of top-down spending splurge, but it would be more affordable too. At a time when the Conservatives are slashing public expenditure, there simply exists no surplus of funds to direct at improving economic performance such a manner.

The desired result can best be achieved, as it turns out, by an opposition initiative, pioneered by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. Back in June, Labour’s chief economic spokesman called for a reverse in the VAT rise initiated by George Osborne – from 20pc back to 17.5pc, in other words – at a cost of £13 billion. Balls claimed such a bold gambit would “help to stimulate consumer spending, bring down inflation and boost job creation” – he was right then, and his initiative would be more than welcome now.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Unlike most countries in the world, we do not define citizenship based on race or ethnicity. Being American or British is not about belonging to a certain group; it’s about believing in a certain set of ideals — the rights of individuals and the rule of law. That is why we hold incredible diversity within our borders….

Yes, our diversity can lead to tension. Throughout history, there have been heated debates about immigration and assimilation in both our countries. But even as these debates can be difficult, we fundamentally recognize that our patchwork heritage is an enormous strength — that in a world which will only grow smaller and more connected, the example of our two nations says that it’s possible for people to be united by their ideals, instead of divided by their differences; that it’s possible for hearts to change, and old hatreds to pass; that it’s possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament, and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States.

Segment from President Barack Obama’s speech to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, May 25, 2011.

(Source: CNN)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Barack Obama inspects the guard of honour 1st Battalion Scots Guards with the Duke of Edinburgh. Click through to see the rest of The Guardian's photographs from the first day of President Obama's state visit to the United Kingdom.
(Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Barack Obama inspects the guard of honour 1st Battalion Scots Guards with the Duke of Edinburgh. Click through to see the rest of The Guardian's photographs from the first day of President Obama's state visit to the United Kingdom.

(Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)