London Calling

London phoneboxes2I have just returned from the annual family pilgrimage to London which involved too much time spent navigating the traffic jams and not enough time with friends and relations.

Unusually, this trip came a full year since the last jaunt to London. I am normally able to drop in a short visit thanks to work. But a whole twelve months away felt like a long time, especially as London seems to be changing at the speed of light.

Once upon a time the city could be depended upon for certain things, such as dilapidated public transport, dirty streets, mediocre food, and a sense that Londoners were enduring rather than enjoying the city.

But how things have changed. It was a shock to arrive into the brand new Heathrow Terminal 2, which not only functions well, but proved to be a pleasure to travel through with its light airy interior and inventive artistic installation – resembling an engorged metal snake. The Tube also – while not exactly a joy to experience in summer – (when will the invention of air conditioning reach the Underground?) – was clean, well lit, and efficient.

At every turn there seemed to be something new. King’s Cross where I once lived has become a haven for day trippers as opposed to tripping junkies. Where runaways, prostitutes and drunks used to fill the space in front of the station, crowds now bustle around a piazza filled with organic food stalls.

The south of the River Thames – a place that some Londoners preferred to forget existed – has become a magnet for cultural venues and business. Wandering from London Bridge Station to the Design Museum near Tower Bridge shows off both renovated Victorian warehouses and gleaming new office buildings.

Londoners themselves have been transformed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of newcomers. In the space of a couple of hours I encountered a museum guide from France, a butcher from Slovakia, a barista from Poland, and a mini-cab driver from Somalia – all had arrived in the city within the past few years, and all now called the city home.

A walk down any random street was akin to a stroll through corridors of the United Nations. London is a meeting place for work and play for millions of people from every corner of the globe.  But of course as with every success story there is a downside. The city’s population is estimated at 8.6 million; the highest number in its history. That means public services are stretched to bursting point. Travelling on a packed Tube train at rush hour requires a contortionist’s dexterity combined with a Bedouin’s tolerance for heat.

House prices have also reached stratospheric levels leaving many people literally stuck out in the cold. The city needs to build swathes of properties to house those not earning multi-digit salaries. But the current government seems more inclined to accommodate the needs of well-heeled foreign visitors seeking a bolt-hole, rather than finding space for those truly in need.

Nevertheless, the city is undergoing a renaissance based on its business friendly, creative and tolerant mindset. It is a beautiful and irresistible mish mash of architectural styles, languages, and cultures.

Of course even as some things change, so others remain stubbornly the same. The area where we were staying is thoroughly gentrified with gourmet butchers, organic cafes, and yoga studios. But the pub at the end of the high street, stands as a monument to that proud British tradition of noisy chat, irreverence and utter inebriation. And come Saturday night, the raucous drunks staggering between crushed beer cans and packets of chips served as a reminder that while London may be a world city, it still retains some old habits and traditions that make it forever……London.

Happy Birthday?

In a matter of days I will hit a half century. I am not referring to cricket scores but rather to age.

50 years old, which once (not so long ago) seemed to exist in the distant mists of time, has now descended upon me with a sudden thump.

Up until a just a few days ago, I dismissed this milestone as insignificant, amounting to just another number and a business opportunity for Hallmark.

But as the day has neared like a rapidly approaching chasm in the path of a runaway train, so I have found myself mulling over its meaning. I have been dredging my mind for memories of past (mis)adventures and speculating on future exploits.

One of the prevailing feelings in the midst of this introspection is injustice, of having been cheated – that while my birth certificate says fifty my emotional body clock is stuck somewhere in my mid-20’s. I feel like Tom Hanks in the film ‘Big’ – only with less maturity.

Never has the saying that ‘youth is wasted on the young’ felt more appropriate. It seems grossly unfair that the early years of our lives go by as if in slow motion. But as time passes, so the clock speeds up, to the point where weeks fly by like days, and years pass in the space of months.

It would be much fairer if ageing operated the other way around. Time should bound along at a canter during the early decades so that youthful mistakes, hangovers, heartbreak, and the inevitable embarrassments are quickly forgotten.

Similarly, the later years should amble by, allowing sufficient time to appreciate the achievements won, the lessons learnt, and the tastes acquired before everything draws to a very slow and satisfying close.

As it is, getting older is filled with unfair contradictions. I have a wealth of experience, but can’t remember the details. I can afford and appreciate fine food, but according to my doctor I am not meant to eat it. I can also enjoy great wine and whisky, but the merest sniff of alcohol carries the possibility of a hangover to follow.

And as I age, so I am forced to spend more (of the rapidly passing and diminishing) time carrying out running repairs on my fraying bodily fabric. Exercise which was once effortless and recreational is now an ache-filled necessity to ward off the encroaching years and added weight.

The other problem with fifty is that in chronological terms it is stranded in no-mans land. I am no longer filled with youthful vigour, yet at the same time I have not yet acquired the Obi-Wan Kenobi-like wisdom of those who have seen it all. Middle-age perfectly captures what it is to be fifty – not at the extremes or the cutting edge but rather in the somewhat featureless center.

This may sound like my birthday has all the makings of mid-life crisis, but I will not be rushing out to buy a Harley Davidson or getting “FOREVER YOUNG’ tattooed across my chest.

Firstly, crises involve a lot of effort, and at this stage of my life I have neither the energy nor the time to waste in trying to re-capture my long departed youth. Secondly, at the end of the day, even with the whining, aches, indigestion, and sprouting grey hairs there are a number of advantages to reaching fifty.

Despite decades of rank irresponsibility, some experience has been gained along the way, making the here and now more than OK. Professionally, I have become useful for something other than prison or filling man-holes, and personally I have gathered just enough maturity to have miraculously acquired the most fantastic family possible.

The truth is that the view from the perch of fifty is pretty fine. I have a lot to look back on, while also (hopefully) having a decent number of years to experience what lies ahead. At the same time, I still have the capability to enjoy life’s offerings while also (after childcare, bills, holidays, and house repairs) possessing – just about – the means to do so.

So while fifty is just another number (alongside 600 months, 18,262 days and 438,288 hours – but who’s counting?), it is also a landmark to be considered, borne and possibly even enjoyed.

Thus on July 25th I shall be raising a glass of fine wine or single malt whisky, neither too early nor too late in the day, and toasting the past while looking to the future.

L’Chaim – To Life!

Holding tight and letting go: what a child’s first time at sleep-away camp means for a Dad

campfire_kids3There’s been a long interlude between my last blog and this one. I can attempt to blame work travel, of which there has been a fair amount, or more honestly own up to a bout of inertia.

But I have been propelled into action to write by an aching heart caused by the advent of summer.

This is ironic given that the weather is glorious (apart from when it’s too humid to venture outdoors), holidays are on the horizon, and it’s the perfect season for two of my favorite activities: drinking cold beer and standing over a smoky BBQ.

The reason for my longing is the fact that Livvy – our elder daughter – is away for the first time at summer camp. She is currently in North Carolina swimming, playing sports, camping, grilling marshmallows over nighttime bonfires and seemingly having the time of her life. She headed off two weeks ago to a camp we had carefully selected as offering a down to earth fun experience, with a good sprinkling of liberal-minded Jewish values and practices thrown in.

The camp runs for over three weeks during which time, she is not allowed to call us, and we are not allowed to ring her. Phones and emails are off limits for the campers, and our knowledge of what Livvy is up to is limited to seeing daily pictures of her on the camp website.

If the width of her smile on the photos is anything to go by, then she seems to be a picture of happiness and well-being. Given the absence of letters from her (apart from a sole 40 word long note), I can only assume that she is having such a good time that she has temporarily forgotten her parents!

By contrast, I have written to her at least every other day, and we have sent two care packages with all the essentials such as new socks, stick on tattoos and Minion goggles (one of life’s essentials for any fan of ‘Despicable Me’).

When the subject of going to sleep away camp came up last year, Lysette and I reacted with similar shock and horror to the idea that our eldest (yet still young) daughter would head off hundreds of miles from home for almost a month.

In Israel and the UK, the idea of sending off a 9 year old who had only spent a night or two away from home, to the care of (trained) strangers, verged on child cruelty. But in the US – particularly among Jews – going away to sleep-away camp is a rite of passage. Added to which Livvy embraced the idea with little doubt and great enthusiasm, leaving us with the sense that to deny her this important chapter of her childhood would be surrendering to our own inhibitions.

Some of Livvy’s contemporaries have gone off for seven weeks, but the prospect of having her away for such a length of time, is too much for my close-to-home English/Israeli influenced sensibilities. As it is, I have found myself gazing longingly at her picture, and relocating to her bedroom in the middle of the night.

But despite missing her and worrying about what she is up to, I also understand the importance and value of her time at camp. She is establishing her independence, making far-away friends, learning new skills both social and practical – all without us present. She is also having a Jewish experience that is fun, positive and endlessly rich.

Edie – Livvy’s younger sister – has closely studied the pictures emanating from camp and informed us that next year, she too wants to go. I find myself greeting her pronouncement with a mixture of trepidation and pride.  I dislike the idea of not having my daughters close by, but at the same time I am admiring of their willingness to strike out on their own.

It seems only a very short while ago that Livvy and Edie were gurgling infants, who couldn’t do anything for themselves, and would cry the second we were out of sight. But time has flown by at an incredible pace, and seemingly in an instant they have been transformed into capable individuals with a strong sense of themselves and what they want.

I am only just beginning to understand that parenting is not only about guiding your children hand in hand, but also letting them stray from you to make discoveries for themselves. In that respect it’s not just my nine year old daughter who is gaining important insights from her time away at camp.

I can’t wait for Livvy to come home (7 days, 3 hours and counting!). At the same time I want the experience to stretch out for her, knowing that it will likely become engraved in her character forever.

Washington DC – Dysfunction in Democracy

Parliaments are the engine rooms of democracies. They are where the (often dirty) work of government gets done. What they look like, and how they function says a great deal about the society in which they operate.

Admittance not guaranteed to all

Admittance not guaranteed to all

Last week, after more than two years in the US I finally made it to Congress to see America’s federal legislature in action. The building sitting atop Capitol Hill looks out grandly upon Washington, stamping its dominant presence upon the national monuments and government offices set out below.

The building was made to impress. Beyond the inevitable security barriers, body scanners and X-ray machines, it’s all neo-Greco-Roman pillars and marble, complemented by classical 19th century European-style interior design. Carefully positioned statues reflect the diverse origins and achievements of the United States, including busts of a Native American chief and an astronaut.

Along shiny, broad corridors are the two chambers that make up Congress; the upper house – the Senate, and the lower House of Representatives.

The Senate chamber which was mostly empty when I visited has a clubby ambience, which is fitting given that it has just one hundred members representing over 320 million American citizens. The grand (and mostly elderly) men and women huddle in groups of two or three, chatting when not delivering speeches from their schoolroom-like wooden desks. The House of Representatives akin to the teenagers table at a family gathering; younger, busier and noisier – with legislators slyly check their phones while chatting volubly with colleagues.

The public galleries were a mix of those who came to be impressed, and those who came to press a cause. There were tourists, grandparents with grandchildren, middle-aged couples, college students and others. There were also lobbyists – many on this particular day coming from AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) which was holding its annual conference in DC. Alongside AIPAC there were others pressing their own causes, including a delegation from the civil aviation industry.

In the US lobbying is seen as – technically at least – an important element within the country’s democracy. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees it as a right. But many ordinary Americans now see the various lobby groups as having tainted their democracy with too much influence and too much money. Recent figures by a non-profit organization called the Center for Responsive Politics show that spending by lobby groups in Congress has doubled since 2000 reaching a total of $3.23billion last year! The same database shows that John Boehner, the Republic Speaker of the Senate received over $17m in campaign contributions in 2014, with substantial amounts coming from groups representing the securities and investment industry, real estate, retirees, oil and gas, and mining.

The US Congress as well as the offices of other elected officials are awash with cash from lobbyists, big and small. All this money has a distorting and corrupting influence upon the workings of the legislature. Senators and Congressmen are dancing to the tune of the donors rather than the voters. This was most sharply illustrated in April 2013, when there were efforts to expand background checks for gun buyers and ban assault weapons in the wake of the slaughter by a crazed gunman of twenty children and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Despite polling data showing a majority of Americans favoured these measures, it failed to pass in the Senate, after the National Rifle Association brought its weighty political bludgeon to bear upon wavering Senators, ensuring they followed its diktats – or face the consequences.

All this has translated into disgust and disillusionment by many voters for their elected representatives. In the Congressional mid-terms four months ago, only 36% turned out to cast their ballot, the lowest figure in over seventy years.

Congress - in need of repair

Congress – in need of repair

Apathy is flourishing at the expense of democracy. Ordinary Americans feel disconnected from the mechanics of government. They see politicians as a breed apart, more interested in preserving their own comfortable seats and satisfying their donors, rather than looking to more modest needs of the average citizen.

The Constitution begins with words ‘We the People’ emphasizing the primacy of the populace in the American system.  The founders of the country sought to build a society that protected against the influence of the privileged few, and put government – as much as possible – in the hands of the citizenry. There is thus a sense of tragic irony to the current situation, where the people feel excluded from the engine room of their democracy.

After wandering the halls of Congress I left to admire the grandeur of the building from outside. But in viewing the obscured Dome currently undergoing building work, it was clear that the faults in America’s legislature go far beyond the fabric of the structure.

Home and Away: how Netanyahu has got the USA all wrong

Obama-Netanyahu-1It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. That phrase could have been invented for Bibi Netanyahu and his ambassador in Washington Ron Dermer, in describing their conduct surrounding the invitation – issued behind President Obama’s back – for the Prime Minister to address Congress. It has revealed how in dealing with US neither off both of these supposedly skilled operators sees themselves as outsiders trying the win influence on a foreign field, but rather insiders playing US party politics.

That political storm that began with John Boehner’s invite and Bibi’s eager acceptance continues to rage with mounting ferocity.

In meetings last week, Congressional Democrats (stalwart supporters of Israel) roasted Dermer and accompanying Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein for snubbing of the President. Democratic House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi has said that members won’t boycott the speech but that they might also be unable to attend due to their ‘busy’ schedules. Those who have already announced they will be busy elsewhere include Vice President Biden with the most senior serving Senator, Patrick Leahy, along with a clutch of other lawmakers.

Even a few US conservatives have taken umbrage at the disrespect meted out to the President. Fox News – normally a pro-Israel bastion has delivered some harsh criticism in Bibi’s direction.

Netanyahu himself has insisted he will still speak (intimating also that he’ll be doing so for all Jews) due to the need to address the issue of Iran (but of course unconnected to the Israeli election two weeks later). But his stubbornness really speaks of a man whose judgment has become determined by an insatiable sense of his own self-importance and entitlement, at the expense of all other interests.

There is a huge irony the way this drama has unfolded. Netanyahu is judged to be the most ‘American’ of Israeli Prime Ministers. He was picked out in the early 1980’s by then Defence Minister Moshe Arens 1980’s to join the Israeli Embassy in Washington given his flawless US English, and familiarity with all things American. He did after all attend high school in Philadelphia (home also to his accent), went to college at MIT and began his career in the States. Along the way he also picked up some influential contacts. Former Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney was a close colleague from Bibi’s days at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970’s.

Bibi has a coterie of other contacts and relationships that bind him closely to the Republican Party. Among them Sheldon Adelson, super-donor to Republican causes and backer of many things Bibi (including Yisrael Hayom – a Netanyahu friendly free newspaper). Netanyahu’s most import pollster Arthur Finckelstein who has guided him through many elections, has also worked with a range of Republican candidates including the Old Gipper, Ronald Reagan.

Over and above these relationships there is an ideological affinity that weds Bibi and the current day GOP. They share a world view that sees the world only in black and white and no shades of grey, both on the domestic and international stage; from economics to Iran.

Ron Dermer comes from the same stable as Bibi. His CV reads like that of a Republican staffer, rather than a close adviser to an Israeli Prime Minister. Miami born and raised, Dermer went to work in the 1990’s for a conservative political consultant designing the ‘Contract for America’ a political manifesto authored by (among others) Newt Gingrich. When he did make Aliya a few years later, he brought his Republican baggage (and contacts) to his new home.

Dermer and Netanyahu’s familiarity with all things American (particularly of the Republican variety) has given them a blind spot in understanding the true nature of Israel’s relationship with Washington. All Netanyahu’s predecessors – Labour and Likud – knew Israel’s place with the country’s most generous patron. Israel was a foreign state seeking the support of a global superpower. It had to observe the rules of that relationship and respect the powers in Washington accordingly. But this Prime Minister with Dermer by his side sees the relationship through the prism of their own American infused DNA, according them a place – by right – within American decision making.

John Boehner may or may not pay a political price for snubbing the President. But whatever does transpire, it will take place in the domestic sphere. Netanyahu and Dermer are using Israel’s relationship as a stake to be gambled with for their narrow political interests.

Israel’s relationship with the US has flourished in recent decades thanks to a sense of shared values as well as shared interests. When looking towards Israel, American Democrats and Republicans alike view a Middle Eastern version of themselves. They see a country founded by people fleeing persecution and in search of freedom. They see in Israel, dynamism, democracy, and self-reliance – all of which resonate across the political aisle in the US.

The US has come to share interests including: in contending with Iran, in dealing with Islamic extremism, and establishing some security from the rubble of the Arab Spring. Interests can and do change depending upon circumstances, and there are clearly some differences emerging in the mess of the current day Middle East between Israel and the US – most notably on Iran.

But shared values underpin relationships and carry weight that can be brought to bear in influencing behavior and shaping decisions. By casting in their lot so publicly with the Republicans, Netanyahu and Dermer threaten the solidity of the foundations upon which the US-Israeli relationship rests.

Current Israeli government policies are a further corrosive element. Settlement building in the West Bank – undertaken with gusto by Netanyahu – also eats away at that notion of shared values. There is only so long that Democrats and their liberal base can continue to believe that Israel is like them, when – in the absence of any prospects for a two state solution – Palestinians are denied sovereignty and basic rights alongside Israel. Provocations like going before Congress will only serve to remind many in DC of how much Netanyahu’s values are inconsistent with that of their American counterparts.

Bibi is coming to Washington to boost his credentials with Congressional Republicans and also to give himself a hand up in the Israeli election a few weeks later; it is for him and Ron Dermer a perfect mix and match of Israeli and American politics. But his over-familiarity with the US, risks breeding such contempt that it will drive a wedge between the Jewish State and its most important ally.

Remembering the past to fight hatred today

auschwitz---gateIt’s 70 years since Auschwitz was liberated and the anniversary is being marked in Poland with a gathering of international leaders at the death camp to remember the horrors undertaken there and throughout Europe by the Nazis.

The anniversary is also a natural opportunity to think about and ponder the significance of the Holocaust, how it happened, what it means today, and the lessons that can be drawn from that terrible chapter of history. The BBC decided to use the occasion to raise the issue yesterday on its appropriately named ‘The Big Questions’ TV programme asking, ‘Is the time coming to lay the Holocaust to rest?’

The BBC is entitled to pose such a question, but it is also fair to ask, what were the programme-makers thinking?

Would they have asked: What is the point in honouring British War dead? (to coincide with Armistice Day) Or alternatively: ‘Isn’t wife-battering a private matter? (on the eve of Day of Remembrance for victims of Domestic Violence). I doubt it.

‘The Big Questions’ normally concentrates on more anodyne issues: ‘Should Parliament force the Church of England to appoint women bishops?’ Are today’s young being expected to pay too much for the baby boomers? And should governments pledge a percentage to foreign aid?

Asking such a question on the Holocaust is also telling in what it implies. The subtext suggests: ‘haven’t we heard enough about the Holocaust and isn’t it time that people (i.e. mostly Jews) stop going on about it.’

‘The Big Questions’ also raises other issues – including, what exactly is meant by laying the Holocaust to rest? Does that mean that countries should cease teaching about it in schools? Should we move memorials to the millions of Jews, Communists, Roma, homosexuals and other murdered to somewhere less public and more discrete – so we don’t have to be confronted by such nastiness?

Troublingly, the mindset of dismissing and diminishing the Holocaust which underlie such questions are to be found among significant numbers of people around the world. According to a study last year by the Anti-Defamation League, 44% per cent of people polled in France think that, ‘Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust’.

The same study revealed that in the Middle East and North Africa 38% of those questioned were aware of the Holocaust, and of that number only 8% believed in the factual historical account of what occurred.

Bluntly put, the survey reveals Holocaust fatigue twinned with growing antipathy towards Jews around the world. In the aftermath of the Second World War, anti-Semitism was drowned out (in Europe and the West) by the nightmarish images that emanated from the concentration camps. But as the generation that suffered through that orgy of Jew hatred is dying out, so anti-Semitism is springing back to life with renewed vigour.

Men, woman and children gunned down in a kosher supermarket, in a religious school, in a museum for the simple fact of being Jewish. This is happening now, within the lifetime of many Holocaust survivors in the same Europe that hunted and annihilated Jews in their millions.

In 1995, neo-Nazis desecrated a Jewish cemetery in the small French town of Carpentras as a tribute to Adolph Hitler. They exhumed one of the corpses defiling it, and destroyed over thirty graves. In protest, one hundred thousand French people led by then President, Francois Mitterand marched through the streets of Paris to protest.

In 2012, four Jews – a rabbi and three young children were murdered in their school in Toulouse by a Muslim extremist. Following that outrage, just six thousand people turned out for a rally in the city.

And if had not been for the massacre in the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, then how many would have gathered to mourn those murdered in the kosher supermarket?

Anti-Semitism on Europe's streets. Geneva, November 2014.

Anti-Semitism on Europe’s streets. Geneva, November 2014.

In France, throughout Europe and beyond, anti-Semitism has become quite literally part of the scenery. A few months ago while visiting Geneva, I passed graffiti showing a Star of David alongside a swastika. I was shocked but not surprised. The ancient hatred has found a new guise.

It is a paradox among anti-Semites the world over, from jihadists to neo-Nazis that while they wish Jews dead they also dispute the Holocaust.

So in answer to the BBC’s inane and offensive question: Is the time coming to lay the Holocaust to rest? The answer is emphatically that such a moment must be further away than ever.

Finding answers for France’s questions in the USA

France-USIn Paris, the procession of millions has come and gone, and the dead have been buried. Now the hard work must begin for the French Government. It must address the fallout from the murders in the Charlie Hebdo offices and in the kosher supermarket.

The killings have been a body blow to the French, and European body politic – even more so than previous deadly attacks by Islamists in Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005. These latest atrocities demonstrated the violent nihilism of extremist Islamism, and the real and present danger it poses to France and other European countries.

The Paris attacks require responses to a multitude of challenges on security, intelligence, communal relations and more.

In addressing them, the authorities must chart a path that does not give any ground to radical Islam or the far right, but that does not also generate support for either camp. At the same time, France must be unstinting in reassuring those most threatened by this extremism: from the Jewish community to dissenting journalists.

The attacks also raise critically important questions about what France (and other Western European countries) stand for, in terms of value,s and how they should be realized in a way that neither creates social unrest nor dilutes them to the point of irrelevance.

The French Government must find a way to give full expression to the values that underpin its free society while also making all its citizens – of all backgrounds – understand what this means in practice.

By way of a model, France would do well to look to the United States, the country with which it once shared an ideological kinship based on similar notions of liberty, anti-monarchism, and a rejection of state clericalism.

The US may seem like a peculiar example considering that much of the Moslem world sees it (along with Israel) as Islam’s greatest enemy.

But America offers a positive example in terms of its own Muslim population, which fares better socially and economically than communities in Europe. A poll carried out a few years ago revealed that US Muslims reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than their counterparts in Western Europe. It also showed that European Moslems are far more likely to place greater importance on their religious identity rather than their nationality.  In short, American Muslims are more integrated, moderate and successful than their European co-religionists.

There are a number of reasons that help explain the differences including, education, national origins and more. But the main factor marking the variation between Muslims on different sides of the Atlantic is the unapologetic assertion of values in the US, which rightfully puts notions of freedom for all, far above the sensibilities of any particular section of society.

The First Amendment of the Constitution says it all, in prohibiting an established religion while protecting freedom of religion, speech and the press.

This is not an easy proposition in practice, and has caused much division and debate about how such rights should be upheld. In 1978, US courts backed the right of neo-Nazis to march through the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois, home to many Holocaust survivors.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) more used to representing the injured rights of African-Americans, took on the case of the swastika-bearing marchers.

The ACLU’s lawyers (some of whom were Jewish) said freedom had to come first, in spite of the grave offence that would be caused to the people of Skokie. The civil rights of neo-Nazis to express their constitutional rights in marching and voicing their views must be protected. And this is where America has it right and Europe (until recent events) has had it wrong.

Causing deliberate offence is part and parcel of freedom of speech. The ACLU and the courts understood that the right belonged as much to hateful neo-Nazis as it did to everyone else in society.  Europe has in recent years shied awayfrom  such assertions in dealing with materials offensive to Muslims in order to buy (an illusory) communal peace and avoid anything that might fuel extremism. But such tactics are seen only as a sign of weakness by those who challenge such freedoms, provoking rather than appeasing.

The US has demonstrated through its uninhibited free speech that such values must be given life and cannot sit as inert ideas to which lip service is paid, but in reality are absent of tangible meaning.  It has welcomed huddled masses to its shores on the proviso that they take on board – as Americans – the principles embodied in the Constitution. It has promised freedom in exchange for an understanding that such liberties cannot be infringed upon whatever your origins or beliefs.

I have written previously  of the strangeness of seeing my children pledge allegiance to the American flag in school. They stand hand on heart to attention vowing loyalty to the country as, ‘indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. I have also spoken of the prevalence of the American flag and the reverence felt for it by Americans of all political stripes and origins.

Coming from a background which saw the British flag as a threat rather than a promise, I originally found such devotion disconcerting. But as Europe has discovered, if you cannot articulate your views and you will not assert your values of liberty and freedom, they will be progressively challenged, threatened, and weakened.

I feel nervous in viewing France from here, seeing the fears, passions and hatreds unleashed by events of last week.  But just as French Revolutionaries looked across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century to the new United States of America for ideas and inspiration, now the leaders in Paris should the gaze in the  same direction for a way ahead to reinvigorate and protect their society and its ideals.

Whither Europe – whither European values?

french flagThis blog is normally reserved for personal reflections on the nuances of life in the US as compared to the UK, with occasional commentaries upon other matters as they seize my interest. But the murder of 12 people by Islamist fanatics in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has cast any other thoughts into irrelevance. Along with millions of others, I feel profoundly angry and upset at the massacre of bunch of journalists who were armed only with pens and a biting sense of satire.

Like others I ask myself how could this happen? How could such medieval tyranny be visited upon a country synonymous with Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité? Where will it end, and what effect will this have upon freedom in France and elsewhere in Europe?

But while this outrage is shocking, it is also not unexpected. It is just the latest in a long line of attacks by jihadists in Europe against freedom and against those that have offended their bloodthirsty nihilism. Remember Theo van Gogh – the Dutch film director murdered on the streets of Amsterdam ten years ago following his film, ‘Submission’ which criticized the treatment of women in Islam? Recall the riots along with attacks against European diplomatic missions, churches and Westerners throughout the Middle East that followed the 2006 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Mohammed?

At the time, the reaction of some in Europe was to back these deliberately provocative images and speak up for freedom of expression. But many others retreated in fear, urging self-censorship to appease those whose sensibilities had been offended. Since then, most of Europe – governments and civil society – have only been going in one direction – in retreat – in the face of those who want to limit freedom and the values which underpin it. This has predictably strengthened rather than sapped the will of those who want to put their particular beliefs above those of society as a whole.

One of the basic problems that has confronted Europe in dealing with the threat posed by Islamist extremists, has been its failure to articulate what exactly are ‘European values’ or at least the values embodied by individual European countries.

A few weeks ago, I tuned in to listen to BBC Radio’s ‘Any Questions’ programme. For those unfamiliar, it consists of a changing panel of politicians and commentators of differing ideological stripes responding to topical issues raised by members of the audience. (If you want to hear the relevant section follow this link and begin listening at approximately 33:40).

‘Can the panel define British values?’ asked one questioner. This followed a report by education inspectors on a number of independent Muslim schools in East London which stated that the teaching on offer was ‘failing to promote British values’. The report cited one secondary school, where the pupils were unable to tell inspectors which was more important: sharia or English law.

I was expecting that the responses of the ‘Any Questions’ panel would reflect diverse make up of its participants; a patrician Conservative MP, a radical left-wing former Mayor of London, a Guardian columnist, and a centrist parliamentarian from the Liberal Democrat Party. What followed though was a stream of inanities from all the panellists and agreement that such values were either inexpressible or didn’t exist. The Guardian commentator, Polly Tonybee, revealingly said that – to her – the whole concept of British values suggested, ‘we have this thing called tolerance that nobody else has, or that we have this respect for freedom and democracy that nobody else has.’ Any expression of such values she believed, implied superiority and was therefore somehow unworthy.

This muddled, misguided and apologetic failure of a definition highlights where and how Europe has got it wrong.

Sadly this thinking isn’t confined to the opinion pages of the Guardian newspaper.  Governments in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and elsewhere worry that in defining their values, they will be labelled chauvinist and racist. They have abstained on the notion of national pride thus handing it to right-wing bigots. Consequently we have seen the Le Pens and their ilk gaining more and more traction throughout Europe. For the same reason there is also self-denial from these governments that there is a real problem of extremism and radicalism within sections of the Muslim community in the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and elsewhere.

It is the responsibility of society as a whole – including Muslim communities – to address this phenomenon. This extremism cannot also be dismissed as an errant weed – it is more than that, and has an appeal wider than politicians in Europe and community leaders throughout the Continent are willing to admit.

Viewing Europe from afar it looks like it is under siege, and that its ancient battlements are unprepared for the challenges of the present. I only hope that this latest outrage demonstrates that Europe must assert proudly and unapologetically, the supremacy of freedom, tolerance and democracy as the cornerstones of its existence.

Listening to the Sound of the Future

serial 3Many others have already said it, but ‘Serial’ – the recently concluded audio podcast originating from WBEZ Public Radio in Chicago is exciting, outstanding, compelling, gripping and much more besides. But it also represents something even more than these superlatives.

‘Serial’ is the future of radio, or more accurately audio, and the probable pioneer in a new golden age of audio programming. The programme also demonstrates that BBC Radio, which has always prided itself on the supremacy of its output, has nothing which compares to the creative and journalistic oomph of this American podcast.

But firstly for those who happen to have been living on a distant planet or have had three month long internet outage, then let me try to sum up the phenomenon of ‘Serial’. It is a non-fiction story told in twelve weekly episodes. The podcast chronicles and examines in minute detail the murder of an eighteen year old Maryland high-school student, Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syded, for the crime.

The case raises doubts about Syed’s guilt, who at age 18 was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

The story unfolds across the weeks led by an unlikely Sherlock in the form of journalist Sarah Koenig. Her sassy, quirky personality, along with first-person asides drives the narrative. The episodes are filled with a lot of in-depth research, interspersed with Koenig’s personal musings, doubts, and revelations. Along the way we learn a great deal about the case, but also a lot about the reporter herself.

The combination of meticulous research, Koenig’s reporting style and the suspense-driven format melds it into a compulsive product. Without any marketing campaign, ‘Serial’ reached five million downloads on iTunes quicker than any other podcast before, and to date has achieved an incredible forty million downloads in total.

In reflecting upon ‘Serial’ there are a number of points that stand out.

Firstly, it demonstrates the particular stylistic and journalistic strengths of American public radio. Having grown up listening to the BBC and then working for it for 17 years, I was educated to believe that de-personalized reporting with tidy endings was best and right. ‘Serial’ broke many of the cardinal rules of radio journalism that I was taught, with its format held loosely together, through the literal and metaphorical ramblings of the reporter, along with its refusal to come to any definitive conclusions on the subject matter.

The podcast also drew upon the easy informality and personal storytelling which permeates much of American public radio, and which is so foreign to its British counterpart. In the UK there are sharply polished current affairs programmes, along with carefully constructed radio-plays. These are labour intensive products drawing upon the extensive resources of the broadcasting colossus that is the BBC. Public radio in the US has no such riches. It relies upon the generosity of individual and corporate contributors to keep going. But it has made a virtue of its paucity, using less to create more, particularly through stripped-down first person narratives (the best examples of which can be heard on ‘This American Life’ and ‘The Moth’).

The variations between British and American audio output also reflects deeper cultural differences. Americans are generally less formal and more confessional than their UK counterparts both in everyday life and in broadcasting.

The second point about ‘Serial’ is that thanks to the internet, it is charting a new path ahead for great audio programming. Its trajectory is reminiscent of HBO’s success on cable over fifteen years with its on-screen drama serials.

HBO was able to use the cable subscriptions to fund programmes that were too risky or profane to be made by the established networks. Without HBO we would never have had ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘Band of Brothers’, and more. And where this cable provider first ventured others followed: AMC (‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’), Showtime (‘Dexter’, ‘Homeland’) and more. Now in the further evolution of on-screen drama, online providers such as Netflix, Amazon and others have got in on the act, producing further dramatic riches including, ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Transparent’. This has all been made possible thanks to technological advancements which have liberated programmes from TV networks, and increasingly from television itself, freeing both the provider and the viewer.

This is where ‘Serial’ may have found a new home for audio programming free from ‘radio’.  It is delivered on-demand, allowing people to listen at their own convenience, on line, on the phone, in whole episodes or in small portions. Additionally Serial fits perfectly with the financial model of American public radio, which is reliant upon on hand-outs to keep functioning. It gives more bang for the contributor’s buck, supporting a specific programme rather than a complete network.

So thanks to new technology and sound journalistic skills, ‘Serial’ has created something innovative, accessible and utterly compelling.

It has also signaled that while the fate of radio may be uncertain, the future of audio (at least in the US) sounds good!

Thanksgiving is no turkey

images[8]It has been two weeks since Thanksgiving and I have almost digested the mounds of turkey meat and accompaniments consumed during the festivity. I have also had time to process the meaning of this most American of holidays.

Its origins go back right to the very founding of modern America in the early 17th century. Specifically, Thanksgiving commemorates the first successful harvest by a bunch of English Christian pilgrims who had come to the New World having fled religious persecution in the old country. They celebrated it their survival amid harsh conditions with the local Wampanoag tribe with whom they’d developed friendly relations. It was a landmark for the embryonic European settlement and also a highpoint in relations between the natives and newcomers, which later descended into displacement, death and disasters for the Indians.

Almost five hundred years on from that original meal, Thanksgiving has grown into a national happening of epic proportions. It’s hard to describe to outsiders what a big deal Thanksgiving is here. In the run up to the day, one half of the nation seems to be en-route – via crammed highways and overflowing airports –  to be with the other half, who are frenetically preparing a monumental feast.

Turkeys are the main attraction (and victim) of this annual eatathon.  According to the American Turkey Federation (yes – it really exists) in 2013,  46 million of these plump birds where eaten at Thanksgiving, compared to 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter. That means one turkey between every seven Americans, equaling a lot of poultry with room for considerable leftovers.  This consumption demonstrates the primary place this holiday has above all others in the national calendar.

Our own Thanksgiving experience with extended family in Long Island, came with all the traditional elements. A long traffic jam en-route to the gathering, vast quantities of great food, free-flowing alcohol, and a post mealtime gathering around the TV to watch the day’s big American football games (which all made sense after my second whisky).

Some things were new and strange, such a dish of baked sweet potato sprinkled with marshmallows, but it was all overwhelmingly American in its warmth, generosity and plenty.

Apart from the pleasure of eating and drinking surrounded by great company there was also for me, something deeply satisfying about the holiday itself. It is free of religious dogma, allowing people of all backgrounds to feel they can comfortably participate. Despite the fact that it has become about consumption (and post-Thanksgiving sales), there is an underlying sense that it is about paying homage to America as a country and a society, open to all its citizens.

In the run up to Thanksgiving our local kosher supermarket was stocked with freezers full turkeys sufficient to feed most of the tribes of Israel. For American Jews it’s not just the food that kosher, it’s also the holiday itself. In researching this piece, I was surprised to find backing for Thanksgiving from some of the great orthodox Rabbis.

This holiday is a celebration of American-ness for all people in the country whatever their hyphenations: Irish-American, African-American, Jewish-American and so on. This is one of the great strengths and successes of the USA , that it has managed – even with certain caveats  – to make citizenship here feel inclusive, and also to make people of wildly differing origins want to be able to be a part of this society, without having to give up on their particular background.

Thus, despite my lack of American nationality, I am also beginning to feel the draw of Thanksgiving, and not just because of the prospect of the turkey with all the trimmings.