The huddled masses of modern America

homeless man dcWinter is upon us. The sweltering humidity has been replaced by shivering cold and bare trees. This morning I travelled into the center of the city by Metro, and as usual it was crowded with heavily swaddled commuters bracing themselves for the cold above ground. Except on this particular journey there was a spare seat in the midst of the crowded train carriage. It was empty as the neighbouring space was occupied by a raggedly dressed homeless man, slumped over fast asleep. No doubt he was on the train to get away from the biting chill on the streets.

There are thousands other men and women in DC like him. They live in abandoned buildings, parks, doorways or wherever they can find a place to stay. The most recent figures show that about 7,700 people are homeless among Washington’s 650,000 strong population. That is more than one person in a hundred. By comparison, London with a population of 8.2 million (more than ten times the size of DC) has approximately 2,000 people recorded as living on the streets.

It’s hard to describe what this means in all its cruel reality on a cold Washington day – with the grand monuments, government and office buildings, set against the diminished and ragged destitute for whom these edifices serve as their front-room as well as their back-drop. It’s also hard to explain it to oneself – how there can be so much public despair and need in the capital of the world’s largest economy?

In the morning as I exit the metro a couple of hundred meters from the White House I am greeted by the hulking form of a large middle-aged round-faced African-American man limping between the commuters cup in hand asking for money.

‘Spare a dollar for an old veteran’ he says. Most (often including myself), walk past him eyes guiltily lowered en-route to our comfortable jobs from our comfortable homes. Recently he’s taken to wearing a camouflage jacket either to underline his request or because it was what he got given to replace his old coat.

Veterans are over-represented among the homeless. But in looking at how they are cared for, I learned that only two weeks ago, the very first hostel specifically catering for their needs was inaugurated. The planned building which is just a short walk from Congress will have just sixty apartments to cater for the many hundreds of homeless veterans in the city – leaving many with no chance of finding a space.

Currently the street is a more desirable location than the hostels, even amid the biting cold and rain. The other day I got chatting to Lance, an unemployed navy veteran, who now resides on the doorstep of a major financial institution that lends out billions of dollars around the world.

‘I ain’t going into the hostels,’ he said, ‘they are full of crazies’. He told me how he and his friend Greg stick together at night reading their bibles for comfort.

You can easily find those he is talking about wandering the streets shouting at invisible shadows or slumped in doorways – their demons quelled by drugs and alcohol.

Lance, along with the hundreds of others like him on DC’s streets, represent those who have fallen through the cracks in American society. They may have lost their jobs, seen the break of their family, been struck by a debilitating (and costly) physical or mental illness, or suffered one of any number of other misfortunes. But in the US the cracks are bigger than Europe, and the fraying safety net comes with man-size holes.

The homeless are America’s IDP’s – internally dispossessed people – casualties of an inadequate welfare and health system, and a society which can be unforgiving to those who can’t keep up.

Coming from UK with its comfort blanket of benefits, free and universal health care and much more, it is a shock to see so much human distress co-existing alongside examples of such political and economic success.

Generally speaking, in Britain, the government is perceived in terms of its responsibility to the individual, whereas in the US it is the other way around (as summed up by JFK’s: ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’).

In America there is a sense of can-do, dynamism and individualism grounded upon a work ethic that would induce mass-strikes across the Atlantic. This has brought prosperity and fortune with the US leading from the front in technological and industrial innovations, leaving much of Europe lagging far behind. But when people in the US can’t keep up – for whatever reason, they are faced with a far harsher existence.

At the end of my day in DC, I am confronted with these dual realities as I walk back to the Metro by way of the grand public monuments and the people living on the streets. In doing so, I can only hope that this society which has achieved so much, can also find a way to fully and properly care for those who have found themselves – literally – left out in the cold.

The election cycle and life cycle in the US

applepieIt’s been two years and two days since we arrived in US.

In my head, before we made the move, the thought of coming to live in America summoned up romanticized images of the huddled masses aboard ships sailing past a foggy Statue of Liberty en-route to Ellis Island, to new lives filled with hope and freedom (all set to a soundtrack of Neil Diamond songs).

The reality was far more mundane – British Airways to Washington International Airport, an hour in line to get our passports checked, and then off to our pre-arranged service apartment.

As it happens we landed in the States on the day of the last US Presidential election and I’m writing this in the wake of another national contest – this time for Congress.

This is not to suggest that politics has been a central facet of our time in the US, far from it. But given that Washington DC’s main business is that of government, politics finds a way of intruding into everyday life – such as being caught in a traffic jam as the Presidential convoy makes its way to Congress for the State of the Union Speech.

Nonetheless there is a connection between the US election cycle and the course of our stay – so far – here. The two year mark provides an opportunity to take an accounting – on a national level – of the state of the country, and from our domestic stand-point, on state of our family in the country.

On the national stage much has changed in that time – with President Obama going from the man with the political Midas touch to an untouchable.

We have also changed from wide-eyed newcomers, to (relatively) settled members of a community. In that time, we have found a home, a school, a synagogue and a social circle that seems to fit for our family.

Certain aspects of our absorption into American life have proved easier than others. Unlike in Israel we haven’t had to contend with a foreign language, or a national culture that is predicated upon argument as the basic form of communication. There is also a lack of British reserve and cynicism, which helps in getting things done and getting to know people.

Americans are open, helpful and generally very polite. Initially I found this disconcerting, wondering what was wrong with these people, and if they were medicated to behave so well. And while there was much cultural familiarity, I sometimes found that we really were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’, in everything from swearing to humour.

We have had to make adjustments to the peculiarities of life here as compared to the Middle East. In Israel there is a gritty realism where your senses are heightened (or is that assaulted?) by the sights, smells and human interactions to be found in the markets, streets, and places where people mix. In the US, life is more organized, predictable, and clinical, to the point where you can’t wander more than a few paces without being confronted by a hand sanitizer to ensure that you are suitably sterile.

There are of course good and bad – in the ways and peoples of both places, but it all takes time to get used to the change.

It also takes time to find friends with whom you can be yourself, and this can be an exhausting process. Upon arrival we began meeting people, through work, the school, the neighbourhood and elsewhere. Getting to know them was a reminiscent of dating from my single days without the potential for humiliation or sex. We would meet up with people for a drink, dinner or brunch – and in most cases that would be that. But after endless get-togethers with an assortment of individuals and families we have found a close few, with whom have we can spend effortless time, just being ourselves.

The past two years has been a journey of discovery. We have found the US to be a more foreign and more fascinating country than first imagined. Compared to Israel the notion of American history seems like an oxymoron. And yet despite the relatively short record of modern America, it also possesses a compelling narrative, accompanied by endless places to discover and things to do.

So in reflecting upon the past two years in DC, and our move from Israel it seems appropriate to draw upon an important political source – Winston Churchill – who summed it up best of all when he said that, ‘now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

Having a laugh – or not

usbritShortly after moving to Washington we found ourselves looking over a potential house to rent. After numerous viewings we were taken to a lovely home, tastefully decorated with shiny wood floors throughout, and within our budget.

This prompted a question from me to the realtor (a.k.a estate agent), a quietly spoken lady armed with lots of patience and even more property brochures.

‘We’re thinking of getting a dog. Would the owners be OK with that?’ I asked.

‘I think that all depends upon the size of the animal’ responded the realtor.

‘Well I was thinking about a Labrador’ I said, and then added, ‘but if it’s too big I can always chop off its paws’.

I delivered the line straight-faced, expecting to get – at least – a minor giggle by way of return for my dry wit.

Instead my comment was greeted by an expression of ever-widening horror, with the words, ‘you can’t do that’ escaping the realtor’s shocked features.

This was just the first of many examples of where my British wit, fell very flat on American ears. Now it may be that my jokes simply aren’t particularly funny in any language or culture (highly unlikely), but I contend that the true explanation lies elsewhere.

Living in the US, I have come to understand that while Brits and Americans may (nominally) speak the same language but they are also deeply separated by differing and mostly mutually untranslatable senses of humour.

Many people will no doubt dismiss my thesis, referring to the popularity of American sitcoms in the UK (Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier) as evidence to the contrary. But this is more of a statement about the excellence of US comedy writing in Hollywood that the general everyday humour found on Main Street, America. (The irony here being that US TV comedy at its best is infinitely funnier and cleverer that its equivalent in the UK).

In declaring their love of British humour, Americans will wax lyrical about Benny Hill (often humming for added emphasis the tune that accompanied him chasing after barely clad woman) and Monty Python (invariably repeating the parrot sketch). But both are much misunderstood and misrepresented on this side of the pond.

Firstly the Benny Hill TV show – the broadcast equivalent of smutty postcards found in English seaside souvenir shops – represents a comedic aberration born at a time when Britain was changing from publicly pretending sex didn’t exist to talking about it in the same vein as fart jokes.

Monty Python is seen in the over here as Benny Hill without the boobs and with a posher accent. It is in fact, a subversive, mockery of British manners and class, which gets completely lost amid the slapstick aspects of dismembered knights (the Holy Grail) and naked false Messiahs (the Life of Brian).

I have come up with various theories as to explain the differing approaches to humour found on the separate sides of the Atlantic. Americans are by culture and history more optimistic and less cynical than their Europeans counterparts. The history of the US is one of belief, hope and success.

Britishness by contrast is synonymous with disappointment. From the weather, which is constantly washing out carefully planned social arrangements (even at the height of summer), to the reality of the country’s history which has seen the it reduced from a colossus on the word stage to a sodden overcrowded island off the coast of Europe.

These differences are reflected in the humour. British gags are often self-deprecating, commenting on the inadequacies of the person making the joke. American self- confidence and belief in the potential for success doesn’t allow much room for doing yourself down.

Other national differences also seep out in what makes the two nations laugh. Ethnic humour runs deep in America’s funny bone in a way that is absent in the UK. Where would the US be without the Jewish shtick of Woody Allan, or Richard Pryor’s racially charged wit? In the UK it’s the class-system and manners that provides the fodder for comedians from John Cleese to Steve Coogan.

Given this cultural mutual mismatch, I have tried to constrain my jokey outbursts, but sometimes they can’t be helped. Just last week, I was in the supermarket at the vegetable display. All around were signs for price discounts. Next to me was a woman with a shopping trolley within which was crouched a young boy aged about five years old. Pointing at the child I said,

‘Where did you find that, are they doing special offers on them too?’

Looking at me speechlessly, she moved off at speed in the direction of the organic produce – presumably to something more appealing and entertaining!

My grandfather’s war – Images from 100 years ago.

This slide show contains a selection of items related related to my grandfather Gabriel Miron (1896 – 1979) who served in the King’s Royal Rifles in the First World War from early 1915, until he was injured in October 1918 a month before the end of the conflict.

For a fuller account of his experience in the War see my blog, ‘My Grandpa – My Hero’

To initiate the slide-show CLICK on one of the images below

The Never-Ending Story

circles[1]The conflict rumbles on as if on a loop – just when we all thought that it had gone quiet the incendiaries start flying back and forth again.

I am not (thankfully) speaking bombs and bullets but rather the war of words about the foreign media coverage of the recent Gaza conflict.

This latest outbreak began with a piece by Matti Friedman a former Associated Press staffer, accusing the international media of playing a starring role in fomenting hatred of Israel and Jews, and to failing to treat the story as anything other than a series of caricatures with Israel playing the villain and the Palestinians the victim. He also accused his former boss – Steve Gutkin – of burying a highly significant story about a peace offer made some years ago by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during negotiations with the Palestinians, because it ran counter to the AP’s predetermined view of the Israelis as the rejectionists.

In reacting to Friedman’s initial piece I found myself – as a former Middle East based journalist and UN staffer – recognizing certain aspects of his thesis. I also felt he was right in suggesting that some journalists reporting from Gaza abandoned objectivity and that Western news organizations had wilted before Hamas’s implicit and explicit censorship.

Steve Gutkin also responded to Friedman’s piece describing both the general thesis and specific allegations as ‘hogwash’. He maintained that as AP’s onetime Jerusalem bureau chief he was motivated by a desire to tell a difficult and complicated story objectively and without bias, adding also that he did categorically did not bury a piece, as was alleged .

The row between the two (now former) AP journalists has mushroomed with a further piece by Friedman and Gutkin, and an added intervention by a third former member of staff, on what may or may not have occurred and why. This argument is best left to those who were most closely involved in what occurred at the time.

But it is worth examining the opposing viewpoints of the two main protagonists, to highlight their shared mistaken understandings concerning the media coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.

Beginning with Matti Friedman, who describes the ‘global mania’ of news organizations in covering Israel, which he says is rooted in a ‘hostile obsession with Jews.’ He blames news organizations for elevating the Israeli-Palestinian story to disproportionate levels of coverage – seemingly out of malice – thus drowning out other more urgent and deserving issues from around the world.

I do share some of his frustration that tragedies and outrages elsewhere are woefully under-reported in comparison to the copious coverage afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. But Friedman also misjudges a number of issues to support his belief that it’s all about malevolence towards Jews, which it is not.

To begin with, just because there is excessive coverage does not mean it is all ill-intended. Added to which there are a range of factors driving the extent of the coverage of Israel (and by extension the Palestinians), many of which have little to do with hatred but much more to do with familiarity and convenience.

In an earlier post on my blog, I asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts’. Added to the ancient story, Jews – individually and communally – have played an influential and often tragic role in the Christian and Muslim worlds over the course of centuries. The Jewish presence has been a fellow traveler, beneficiary, contributor and victim in the development of Western (and Middle Eastern) societies. In our ever shrinking world this translates into a fascination among many for Israel and for Jews.

For some it induces infatuation, for many others it results in hatred. The media did not originate this situation, which predates the internet, TV, Radio, and even newspapers. Journalists consciously or unconsciously are the influenced by the currents of history that swirl around them – they are not removed from world they describe – they are part of it.

There are also other less esoteric factors which feed the modern media’s thirst for the ‘Israel story’, including the freedom of the press and the relative lack of danger to journalists compared to elsewhere in the region. Added to which, Israel’s size, and modernity in everything from communications to hotel services makes it a prime destination for headline hungry journalists. While Friedman sees all this attention as a bad thing, it can and does play to Israel’s advantage. When Israelis are under attack –  be it by missiles from Gaza, suicide bombers on buses, or fanatics driving diggers at civilians –  the cameras of the world are pointed in its direction. Atrocities – be they in Congo, the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, Southern Sudan and elsewhere, invariably take place in the absence rather than the presence of the mass media.

Of course there are those, including educated and influential individuals who have an obsession with this little corner of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean, not because they care about the fate of the Middle East, human rights or even indeed the well-being of Palestinians but rather because they are consumed with hatred – for Israel and ‘Zionism’ (as conveniently differentiated in their own minds from Jews). Sadly, in my experience this is becoming more common.

I recently encountered such sentiments from a former BBC colleague – once an editor, who now teaches (!) journalism. In a number of Facebook comments he compared Israeli actions in Gaza those of the Nazis, wrote of Israel as a sick society, and spoke of the apparent power of the Israel lobby in getting a well-known BBC radio presenter to tone down his normal aggressiveness when interviewing an Israeli official. This is not an argument against Israeli policies, it amounts to a diatribe against the very essence and existence of the country.

Some take this lowly standard as representative of all journalists or indeed anyone who questions Israeli policies including its military actions in Gaza or settlement construction in the West Bank.

Let’s be clear – criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That would make most Israelis self-hating Jews. I also know many fine journalists whose reports cast Israel in a negative light, but who are motivated by sound critical thinking, sharp observation and legitimate questioning. Over the years Israeli governments have taken wrong, misguided, and immoral actions, which have been deserving of comment and condemnation.

The attention and criticism of Israel are varied in their sources and their intentions. Matti Friedman is right to be vigilant but he is wrong in thinking that this is all to Israel’s detriment, or a modern manifestation of an ancient hatred.

On the other side of the debate about the media coverage, Steve Gutkin also overstates and simplifies. Firstly he says that the job of journalists when he was in Jerusalem was not to ‘frame’ the roles of Palestinians and Israelis but rather to, ‘simply bear witness to what we saw unfolding before our eyes’.

The media are not accountants with microphones; their job is not just to record statistics and events on a never ending list. This is akin to suggesting that history is just a series of dates with events attached. The act of witnessing is not a sterile activity carried out far removed emotionally and psychologically from the action. It is influenced from where events are seen, by whom, and the ‘baggage’ that the witness brings.

Gutkin himself talks of his own influences including most importantly his belief in ‘humanity’ as somehow freeing him of the clutter of bias. He fails to see that his viewpoint is also partial and in its own way – tribal, rooted as it is, in particular values and assumptions.

The ‘respectable’ news organizations – to which AP belongs – have the job of interpreting the ‘facts’ and framing them, with as much fairness and objectivity as possible. This often means explaining differing narratives containing contradictory versions of the same events. I argued in my blog and continue to insist that the overwhelming majority of news organizations failed to do that in the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. They mostly stuck to a particular predetermined view and were guided by it – of Israeli might and cruelty, versus Palestinian weakness and suffering. And while elements of that description are true, it did not reflect the whole story. Contradictory narratives don’t make for simple story-telling but they represent a truer version of what often occurs.

Gutkin also shrugs off too easily the connection between some of the reporting from Gaza and the ensuing outburst of anti-Semitism witnessed – most obviously – in Western Europe. The media was certainly not the sole or necessarily the major cause for the racism that consumed the streets of Paris, London, Berlin and elsewhere. But its willingness to fall in with a single reading of events combined with irresponsible emoting by some, did help ignite the dry tinder of anti-Semitic sentiment that had built up within many countries.

Steve Gutkin states by way of conclusion that that the ‘real danger (to Israel) does not come from the media reporting the news’ but rather from journalists like Matti Friedman and others who are sparing Israel criticism and thus leading to the demise of the two-state solution.

This is nonsensical in a multitude of ways. The Middle East is a state of huge upheaval as mutually loathing groups go about killing each other with varying degrees of barbarity. The only thing that unites ISIS, Assad, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Iran and others is their shared hatred of Israel – and this – not anything else –  represents the greatest threat to Israel.

There are indeed some supporters of Israel who won’t countenance any criticism of the country or its policies, and who freely use the bludgeon of anti-Semitism to quell any dissident views. But these apologists for wrong Israeli policies – such as the settlements on the West Bank at the expense of Palestinians – don’t call the shots. Israeli Prime Ministers are the ones responsible for driving the country towards the looming  political disaster of a one-state solution.

The ‘story’ of the Israelis and the Palestinians has become a global template for much more than the two peoples fighting over a patch of land. It is a stage for different and competing truths set amid an ancient backdrop and fuelled by very modern passions. Discussion of how it is reported reflects these same currents.

In an effort to bring balance and closure to this issue, it’s seem certain that Steve Gutman and Matti Friedman are unlikely to agree on much when it comes to the treatment of Israel by the media, and much like the conflict itself their argument will run and run.

My Grandpa – My Hero


Lance Corporal Gabriel Miron, 4th Batallion King’s Royal Rifles

A hundred years ago the First World War began, and a few months after that my Grandpa Gabriel joined up to play his part in the conflict.

I remember him as a reserved man, who liked a Dunhill cigarette and small glass of brandy while doing the crossword in his flat situated above his dental surgery. We used to joke that he wasn’t quiet by choice, it was just that he was drowned out by the presence of my Grandma Dora with her purple rinse hair and her booming Welsh accented voice.

Gabriel was born in Swansea, South Wales, the youngest of five children to Israel,  a Lithuanian-born chazzan (cantor), and Leah who originally came from Poland. He joined the army seemingly as soon as he was able, according to rumor, to get away from his father who beat him.

He became a Private – then later Lance Corporal in the King’s Royal Rifles. His ID number was R-13130, which made many of his army comrades superstitiously consider him doomed. But ironically Gabriel was the lucky one, surviving when so many did not.

His military record includes fighting in some of the most historic and bloody encounters of the War from the early trench encounters to the closing battles including: Ypres, the Somme, and the Battle of Cambrai which finally led to breaking through the previously impregnable Hindenburg line. He also took part in a mostly forgotten sideshow in Salonika where the British Army was sent to support the Greeks. His was a war fought amid close quarters in the muddy chaos of the trenches with the possibility of death never far away.

Despite being wounded by shrapnel, almost dying of dysentery and contracting malaria, he made it back home alive (initially in a wheelchair and emaciated), with a Military Medal for gallantry.

But Grandpa didn’t talk about the war, and we kids were told not to ask him about it. I remember when I was about five years old being with my brother in my grandparent’s flat asking him excitedly to tell me about the war. The next thing I recall is him taking down his trousers to show me the back of his legs with chunks missing and pockmarked skin where he’d been injured. ‘You want to know about war, that’s war’, he said – or words to that effect.

Over the years he did let slip snippets to my father, uncle and aunt about his experiences giving clues about what it was like. He mentioned winter in the trenches; so cold and so muddy that the coats they wore were frozen into the ground. He spoke of walking up to the front on the Somme, passing the bodies of Canadian soldiers laid out for over half a mile – or as he put it the length of Kew Road (where he lived in London). He once told my aunt that after he was injured by a shell in his leg at Ypres, the surgeon in the medical tent dipped a pad of cotton wool in iodine and pushed it into the wound – there were no anesthetics.

G MIRON postcard read side 1

Postcard sent October 5th 1918 (just three days before he was injured) en-route to battle.

It wasn’t until after he died in 1979 that we found his keepsakes of the war which he’d kept from view. There is a picture postcard of him looking smart in his uniform with a poignant message sent to his brothers just before he heading off to the Western Front, ‘au revoir  (not goodbye)’.

From his time in Greece, there are delicately preserved dried flowers picked ‘on the banks of the Struma (River) at 12 midnight on Wednesday October 11th 1916 near the Nehori Bridge on patrol’.

A moment of peace: flowers picked while out on patrol - Greece 1916.

A moment of peace: flowers picked while out on patrol – Greece 1916.


Letter to Gabriel’s mother informing her of his Military Medal. ‘I know how well this decoration has been earned’.

There is also the letter from the War Office sent to his mother informing her of his Military Medal.

There are a number of other mementos including a picture with comrades grouped around a machine gun, a message to his ‘dear Mother’, his prayer book issued to ‘Jewish soldiers and sailors’, and his ID tag with surname incorrectly spelt MYRON (a perennial hazard in our family) .

His silence about the war generated its own hum of curiosity and wonder among his children and grandchildren. Looking back I see two versions of his life. There is my grandfather, the boy turned soldier and war hero (although he would never have allowed such immodesty), who is known through the crumbs  of information he divulged, along with his memorabilia and war records. They give hints of his character: his courage, sensitivity and humanity in the midst of unimaginable horror.

The second version of his life is the family man, who once out of the army went to dental school, and married a Jewish girl from back home in South Wales. He settled down to a life in an upper middle class suburb of London, working hard (until his dying day aged 83) to provide for his family, sending his children to English private schools, and pursuing his passion as a Freemason. He enjoyed playing practical jokes and tussling with his grandchildren showing us some of his old boxing moves (another hobby from his army days). If he had demons from the war we didn’t see them – all we saw was our Grandpa.

He was loved and revered for what he knew of him, and also for what we half-knew about him of his time at war. In thinking now about him now, I am filled with wonder at what he did as a soldier, how he survived and how he retained a sense of himself throughout it all. I am sure I could not have done the same. I am also in awe of what he did afterwards in providing love and security for all his children, in building a family and leading by example through his decency and modesty.

So in remembering the First World War and the millions who suffered as a result, I shall keep in mind one man – my Grandpa Gabriel, R-13130.

Do you have a family history involving World War One? Please share.

A special note of thanks to my cousin Helen Style for all her help in gathering much of the material and information in this blog.

A full display of my grandfather’s materials from World War One will be put up on-line in due course

Then and now – Race in the USA

There is – as I have recently discovered – a straight line running from Ferguson, Missouri to Charleston, South Carolina. Ferguson is small town of twenty one thousand people sitting close to the St Louis International Airport, known until very recently for very little either in or out of the its home state.

By contrast, Charleston with a population of one hundred and twenty thousand is a tourist mecca attracting visitors from near and far to experience its renowned Southern charm and architectural beauty.

Yet these two places seemingly so dissimilar and separated by over eight hundred and fifty miles are inexorably linked by the issue of race. The connection between them reaches across centuries from slavery to segregation, right up to present day with the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen year-old  African-American shot by police in Ferguson.

A few weeks ago I visited Charleston, and alongside experiencing great food and sweltering heat, I discovered that it is an appropriate place to begin when pondering the difficult and highly sensitive subject of race.

One of my first stops was to one the city’s cobbled and palm tree-lined streets. Sitting opposite a clutch of picture postcard eighteenth-century houses, is a two story brick building that while modest in size, occupies a big place in the most shameful chapter of American history.

It is believed to be the last surviving building of its kind which served as a slave market – a location for human beings to be bought and sold.

Walter Boags outside the 'Old Slave Mart' in Charleston

Walter Boags outside the ‘Old Slave Mart’ in Charleston

The Old Slave Mart – as it’s called – originally contained a jail, kitchen and morgue alongside room for potential buyers to inspect the human chattels. The space is now a museum, and recalls its former purpose along with the experience of those who passed through it.

Alongside boards explaining the way in which men, women and children were priced and sold, are artifacts such as pamphlets advertising forthcoming auctions, and a leather whip used to flay those people destined to a life of slavery.

The museum guides are the descendants of those who passed through Old Slave Mart and other places like it that once proliferated in Charleston.

Walter Boegs – ‘biker, bartender, tour guide and concierge’ (in that order) says he is a living embodiment of Charleston’s mixed history.

‘Look at me,’ he says indicating his light brown complexion. ‘I have French Huguenot, Native American, and African blood.’

With his rich James Earl Jones-like voice, Walter describes the important place of Charleston in the slave trade, ‘forty percent of the half million Africans landed in North America came through the port’.

He tells of how people were divided by their ‘owners’, irrespective of family bonds, and the scale of the commercial enterprise that was the international slave trade.

Advertising an auction of slaves in the Old Slave Mart

Advertising an auction of slaves in The Old Slave Mart

About ten miles outside Charleston, are examples of where these people were put to work, and how they carved out a new society and economy for the benefit of others. Middleton Place’s lush landscaped gardens line the banks of the nearby Ashley River. Barring the tropical climate, the grand house and surroundings that make up the former plantation, resemble an English stately home (think Downton Abbey with mosquitos).

Here men, women and children once worked in the withering heat, planting, nursing and harvesting rice bound for markets in Europe. The Middleton family, originally from England founded the property and at its height they had 3,500 slaves. While the Middletons lived in faux-aristocratic grandeur, their slaves subsisted in simple wooden shacks possessing the same rights as the estate’s cattle, sheep and horses.

This was of course a long time ago, and the current day Middleton Place Foundation carefully and sensitively describes the horror of what once transpired on the plantation.

Middleton Place today

Middleton Place today

An African-American guide explains how the end of the civil war did bring about the official demise of slavery in the South but did not deliver freedom. That only came with civil rights over a century later.

But even now securing the rightful place of African-Americans alongside others in the US is unfinished business. On the day I toured Middleton Place, the news from Missouri was of unrest and boiling anger following the death of Michael Brown, who had been shot six times and left uncovered on the street for four hours. Justifiable outrage consisting mostly of peaceful demonstrations (with a minority of violent outbursts) was met by M-16 wielding cops, a tank, and force resembling that of an occupying army, rather than a police force meant to serve the community.

That is hardly surprising when you consider that among the fifty three officers of the Ferguson police force only three are black (the town is over 65% African-American). It’s also been reported that at least five of the Ferguson’s police officers are facing civil rights lawsuits for using excessive force (they all pre-date the killing of Michael Brown).

It would be comforting to think that Ferguson is an aberration – but that is not the case. In many places in the US today, having a black skin is a presumption of guilt in the eyes of the police and other officialdom.

While racial profiling has been ruled illegal by the Constitution, on the ground it flourishes, meaning that African-American drivers are around four or five times more likely to be stopped than others. Data on the numbers of African-Americans killed by police are hard to come by, but in the course of a few weeks around the time of Michael Brown’s killing a further four other unarmed black men were killed by police around the country. Additionally, according to a 2013 report, one in three (!) African-American men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime (compared tone in seventeen for whites). These figures are shocking but absent of the anger and frustration that African-Americans must feel when confronted with what this means in reality for them and their communities.

It seems inconceivable that a country founded upon the notion of the equality of all men possesses such inequalities.

African-Americans say the system is stacked against them, and it’s easy to see what they mean. For while segregation ceased decades ago, the de-facto separation of people according to race has persisted. Washington D.C is over fifty percent black, and yet where we live in the prosperous North West you are utterly separated from that reality with a population that is overwhelmingly white. In my neighborhood we benefit from good transport links, well-funded schools, and excellent public services from municipal swimming pools to numerous well-maintained playgrounds. That is not the situation for the African-American majority in D.C.

And while race is an issue that bubbles beneath the surface, discussion of it is codified. While on vacation near Charleston, I got talking one day while relaxing by the swimming pool to a (white) man called Rick from rural Ohio. He explained to me that gun crime began in the wake of the 1968 riots (sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King). Welfare – I was told – was an issue of mainly ‘minorities’ and some others not wanting to work. Rick never uttered the word ‘black’ – he didn’t have to – he hid the term in plain, sight cloaking his racism with euphemisms. It’s the same modus operandi used by others, including some nationally broadcast commentators, when talking about drugs, law and order, or other social issues.

As an outsider (and a privileged white one at that), I am ignorant of what life is like for African Americans. In observing race relations, there are radically different impressions to draw upon. On the positive side of the balance sheet the country has travelled a massive distance in a relatively short period. It has gone from situation just decades ago, when black people in many places in the U.S were not allowed to sit at the same lunch counter as white people, to a place where a man of color is incumbent in the Oval Office.

On the negative side, the socio-economic underclass in DC (and in other cities in the US) is overwhelmingly black. In dealings with the police, the courts, in housing, education and a multitude of others ways, discrimination and disadvantage are everyday occurrences for African-Americans.

This situation has come about in the US over the course of hundreds of years. Starting in Charleston and elsewhere, it stripped a people of their culture, family ties, dignity and most basic rights. It dehumanized them and resulted in unfathomable suffering. Modern America promises full equality and the same opportunities for all, yet many African-Americans are still waiting for that to be realized.

The shadow of Charleston still tragically hangs over the country, and continues to be felt as far away as Ferguson and beyond.

Looking back at Gaza

Gaza entry exitAs the firing subsides in Gaza and Israel (at least for a while) so the post-mortem on the attendant aspects of the conflict has begun. Adding a substantial contribution to the already much discussed issue of the media coverage of the conflict and of Israel in general is a lengthy piece by a former Associated Press staffer, Matti Friedman in which he politely lambasts his former employer along with other foreign media organizations for bias and fuelling the fires of anti-Semitism that have flared around the world.

As a former correspondent (for the BBC) in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as well as a UN official based in Jerusalem the piece piqued my interest and caused me to reflect also upon my own experiences.

There is much that Matti Friedman writes that resonates, when he describes the disproportionate coverage that Israel receives, and the way that the foreign media has broadly speaking accepted a narrative of the conflict which prescribes given roles to Israel (as the guilty party) and the Palestinians (as the victims).

Firstly to deal with what he accurately pinpoints as ‘the global mania’ with Israeli actions. I alluded to the interest that the ‘Israel-Palestinian story’ gets in a previous post, describing the way in which it is perceived (often unconsciously) by many through the lens of history, along with much accompanying religious and cultural baggage.

The story of the Jews in particular has all the ingredients for a blockbuster; including drama from before the time of the Pharaohs to the current day.  There is much tragedy, some hope and ultimate victory in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The history of the modern State of Israel contains elements so unlikely that they seem to belong to fiction rather than fact.  On the basis of one (much debated) narrative – a ragged group of survivors and idealists founded a country (amid tragedy for the Palestinians), reviving a long dead language, fighting off its enemies while forging it into one of the most prosperous and dynamic nations on earth.

Very few around the world remain impartial when confronted with this on-going drama, particularly when it is set amid current global religious and ideological passions.  At times of crisis and combined with other elements it brings out both the anti-Semites (in their droves) and philo-Semites. Personally I prefer neither to be hugged nor kicked on the basis of my identity, but it seems that many people around the world are incapable of seeing Jews as ‘normal’ individuals.

These passions feed into the way in which the story is reported. Israel’s own choices have also opened it up to differing consideration from many other countries and conflicts around the globe. During the recent Gaza conflict the Israeli authorities facilitated the movement of international journalists in and out of the territory. This allowed high-profile reporters and presenters to come and go during the conflict and for news organizations to rotate their staff during the hostilities.  (This contrasted with the Israeli decision to close off Gaza to foreign reporters during a previous round of fighting in 2008- 2009, and for which it was rightly condemned by news organizations).

The Israeli actions enabled high profile presenters such as Jon Snow from the UK’s Channel 4 News to anchor the programme from Gaza and then to return to London to further excoriate the Israeli authorities with passion and emotion during a news broadcast. That may seem unfair (and unprofessional), but it is also the price of having a free society.

It was also notable during the recent military conflict that Israeli military fire came close to the hotel where journalists were staying in Gaza (and from where some missiles were launched by Hamas) but left them unscathed. This reminded me of my own experiences as a correspondent reporting during Second Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza as well as at other times, when we would ring up the IDF to inform them of our positions to avoid being hit.

Journalists could roam through Gaza with relative freedom (considering this was after all a war zone) to witness the deaths and destruction wrought by the conflict. They cannot be criticized for reporting on what they saw – most especially the numerous civilian men, women, and children killed by Israeli army actions. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to remain detached when faced with the body of a young innocent killed in a conflict. The media are right to pose questions about the use of Israeli force, how it was deployed and how much care was, or was not, taken to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions. And yet in reading and watching the coverage out of  Gaza it seems the media held Israel to an altogether different standard. Civilian casualties were often portrayed as the consequence of deliberate Israeli vengefulness and bloodletting.

I have seen for myself how Western armies operate during conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere, and tragically there is no such thing as a clean conflict. I still have the photos I took in an Afghan village of what remained after a US air strike destroyed a family compound killing about fifty civilians in pursuit of one Al Qaeda operative. While there has been some questioning by the media over the extent of civilian casualties (numbering in their tens of thousands) in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it has been muted by comparison to Gaza.

Where Matti Friedman is entirely correct is in the failure of news organizations and their correspondents to point out the controls and ‘pressures’ both implicit and explicit exerted upon them in Gaza by the all-pervasive and tightly run Hamas media operation. This inaction can only be seen as – at best – moral cowardice by media organizations.

It was also notable in what remain unobserved. One senior BBC correspondent wrote after a week of reporting in Gaza that ‘he saw no evidence.…of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.’ This is a very strange statement to make. Firstly, just because the journalist didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t occur, particularly when missiles aimed at Israel were emerging from built up areas inside Gaza. Secondly, knowing Gaza’s physical geography it’s safe to conclude that if Hamas operatives did come out from the territory’s packed urban confines, they would have been quickly struck by an Israeli drone or aircraft fire. If they weren’t in the open they were by definition sheltering in civilian neighbourhoods – thus they were using human shields (similar to the way other guerilla forces  – such as the Taliban – operate).

The Gaza situation sits in stark contrast to Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where Western journalists have become targets, and where danger severely constrains their ability to report. One only has to consider the monstrous murder of James Foley by crazed ISIS fanatics or the death by Syrian army missiles of Marie Colvin in Homs to understand how risky reporting from these areas has become. Word of journalists being abused and kidnapped in Iraq and Syria are kept quiet by media organizations, and I know of former colleagues exceptional in their bravery, who having suffered unreported close shaves now understandably choose not to return to these areas.

The openness and relative safety for journalists of Israel and by extension Gaza have made it the ‘convenient conflict’.  As a correspondent I benefited from the almost unrestrained access to report, excellent communications infrastructure (fast internet, well equipped TV studios, large local news bureau), short distances between locations (vital for breaking news), good air links between Tel Aviv and the outside world, as well as the decent hotels with well stocked bars. All these factors made this corner of the Middle East a journalist’s utopia.

For the same reasons it has made it a convenient place for international political and humanitarian organizations to function. During my time with the UN in Jerusalem, there were approximately 23 separate agencies and organizations working in the oPt (occupied Palestinian territory). It was – a former senior official told me – the greatest per capita concentration of UN resources in the world – more than Iraq or Syria with millions displaced, more than Congo or the Central African Republic wracked by conflict, gross human rights violations and disease.

So what can be concluded from all this? Is this – as Matti Friedman suggests – connected to deeply rooted anti-Semitism? My answer is that I don’t know.

I do know that if Israel is to remain a free society, then it has to allow the media to operate without interference.  On this point during the recent conflict, it remained true to its democratic roots. But in that same vein, it must also account for the Palestinian civilian casualties, and explain to the fullest extent how it operated, and if more could have been done to avoid those deaths.  Israel has in the past instituted State Commissions of Inquiry in the wake of conflicts to examine its conduct, notably after the First and Second Lebanon Wars. It would do well to similarly examine the recent Gaza conflict.

But just as importantly, the (Western) media must also account for itself and for its own conduct including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the conflict. It must question where reporting may have ended and emoting began, if it held Israel to a standard apart from all others, and why it allowed Hamas a free pass in controlling the flow of information.  Its coverage had consequences in fuelling the passions (and hatred) of many on the streets of Paris, London and elsewhere towards Israel, and by extension towards Jews.

The media is instinctively averse from turning the lens of scrutiny upon itself, and will – in all likelihood – veer away from any self-examination. It is better at calling out the wrong-doing of others, than admitting to its own faults. But whatever it chooses to do or not, the picture it painted of Gaza 2014 and its consequences are already etched in the consciousness of many around the world, and will serve as a further chapter in this never ending story.

London’s rising fortunes. For good – or not?

London skylineIn the early 90’s I lived in what an estate agent would call a homely bijou residence, i.e. a cramped, ill-proportioned flat. It was situated in a development called ‘Elm Village’ which was clearly thought up by a very imaginative developer. Rather than being situated, as the name suggests, amid verdant woods in a quiet rural setting, it was surrounded by railway lines and semi-redundant warehouses, littered with old beer cans and condoms.

The creative naming was understandable given that Elm Village was situated just behind the undesirable London transport hub of Kings Cross Station. Then, the area was synonymous with befuddled alcoholics, roaming gangs of feral teenagers, drugs and more.

Despite the efforts to create an up-market oasis in Elm Village, it couldn’t escape its location – to the point where we were forced to put up barriers in our car park to prevent local prostitutes from conducting business there. On one occasion female colleagues from work on their way home from dinner at my place, were stopped by the police who quizzed them as to whether they were ‘out working’. My friends weren’t amused and never came back again.

I bring up Elm Village, as I happened to pass it last week for the first time in over fifteen years, while in London. We were in the UK for a family trip, staying not far away in Tufnell Park. On the first full day, I went for a jog, and found myself drawn in the direction of Kentish town and the Camden Road. These areas now appear fully gentrified. Out have gone the tobacco stained boozers dispensing cheap beer and – at most – crisps to eat, and in have come faux-distressed looking gastro pubs offering mojitos and Mediterranean-style mezze.

Elm Village once a speck of yuppiedom in a wider expanse of urban decay has been joined in the area by a multitude of loft flats in place of the decrepit warehouses. The back of Kings Cross Station which once housed dodgy locks-ups (one of which was fittingly the location of a serial killer’s lair in a TV drama) has been transformed into a new trendy mecca, with arts college, restaurants and fountain-filled square. Kings Cross Station itself has also been made over having had its shockingly ugly 1960’s extension torn down, to be replaced by a sympathetically designed public-friendly ‘urban space’.

The regeneration of this part of central London is old news for most in the city. Huge construction and revitalization projects are underway throughout the urban area from Paddington in the West to Stratford in the East. But to someone who once knew London so well, it’s disorientating. Arriving at Tottenham Court Road, I was completely confused by the absence of the old Astoria Theater and nightclub. It’s been demolished to accommodate – what is at this stage – a large hole in the middle of road, that will ultimately become a link in a new cross-London railway line.

Strolling past freshly scrubbed older buildings, and gleaming newer ones, I crossed the Thames to the Tate Modern Art Gallery, which not satisfied with already being huge in size and reputation is now in the midst of a building project to further increase its size and offerings. From there I fought my way through the throngs to the Borough food market. Once a forgotten corner of the city hurriedly passed en-route to Waterloo Station, this area has now become a destination for the culture-vultures and gastro-tourists. Towering over the area (and the whole of London) is the sleek and beautiful Shard skyscraper, the latest addition in a clutch of imaginative (and sometime strange-looking) buildings that have sprung up in or close to the financial heart of the City.

All this is – in theory – a wonderful phenomenon. The damage wrought by the Blitz and post-war redevelopment seems to be finally being put right. London is flourishing with ever better transport, housing, culture and food. But having recently spent considerable time in New York I can also see the flip side of the change in its fortunes. London is at risk of becoming ‘Manhattanized’ – which can be defined as, ‘habitable only for those of considerable means – thus stripping the urban fabric of its diversity, future potential and human riches (as opposed to just riches)’.

I once had a flat in an area called Kilburn which appears as it if it is being gentrified out of existence. The actual road where my flat was situated now sits in the ‘Brondesbury Conservation Area’ and posher West Hampstead has spread like an affluent stain to encompass what was once most decidedly Kilburn. The prices have also increased putting the area out of reach to those trying to buy an affordable home. A cramped one bedroom flat like mine now goes for over £300,000. As a result, long gone are most of the working class Irish who used to make up the area, and in are moving only those who earn a six figure salary.

Inner London has traditionally been a diverse and exciting place, with a mixture of people from differing economic and ethnic backgrounds rubbing shoulders. Cites are not just the mass of their physical environment, but also the sum of their human capital, and London has historically been living proof of that.

The danger for the city now is that its economic rise could also mark a fall for its social fabric. Unless those differing types including the teacher as well as the tycoon, the old timer as well as the new comer can have their place in the city then it may brim with money but it will be empty of spirit.

If you’re a Londoner (or not) let me know what you think of the changes in the city, for the good and for the not so good.

More is less – on social media and the war in Gaza

Social-Media-Icons-cloudDespite the summer heat there’s a blizzard blowing; not one involving snowflakes and cold, but rather consisting of hot air and bile. I am referring to the avalanche of tweets, Instagram images, and Facebook messages that are filling cyberspace on the subject of events in and around Gaza.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a subject as mentioned in my previous blog which, (to paraphrase Abba Eban  a former Israeli Foreign Minister), never misses an opportunity to become an opportunity, for debate filled with much passion, but little sense.

Numerous (often unverifiable) postings are circulating that purport to present the ‘reality’ of the situation in Gaza and Israel. Twitter is abuzz with images under various partisan hashtags including #gazaunderattack and #israelunderfire. The aim of these postings is to deliver sharp and often shocking messages to back up one or other of the competing narratives.

The late publisher of the Washington Post, Philip Graham is attributed with saying that, ‘journalism is the first draft of history’. If that is true, then social media is the semi-legible half-considered scrawls that precede words being committed to paper.

While the openness of the internet is a welcome antidote to the old days when governments were able to tightly control the flow of information, the over-abundance of data is creating a fog of confusion for those struggling for something more than partisan propaganda. This situation is also negatively impacting the way in which the formal – old style – media operates.

When I began working as a radio reporter in the early 1990’s radio features were edited using razor blades and sticky tape. They were dispatched for broadcast from far flung places by post or over crackly phone lines. Deadlines were hours or days away, allowing time to cultivate contacts over relaxing and reimbursable drinks.

Within a few short years the arrival of satellite and digital technology transformed the methods and pace of the work. Suddenly stories could be filed with relative ease from virtually any dusty backwater with a rudimentary technical aptitude and a few small bags of equipment. Rolling radio and TV news networks meant that deadlines were constant with little time to digest latest developments, let alone a hurried lunch. We reporters working on news networks became the ‘satellite monkeys’ or ‘the gob on the stick’, filling broadcast time from our makeshift studios on rooftops, in fields, or wherever we happened to find ourselves. Despite these limitations and frustrations, reporters worked according to an established order determined by editorial standards.

But today, social media has created an environment where dis-informational anarchy reigns. It is illustrated in all its (lack of) clarity with the current situation in Gaza. Pictures, video, clips and messages often parading as facts are being uploaded for immediate consumption.

This has created a situation in which the image has become the story. Type ‘gazachildren’ into a search engine, or Twitter and you will be confronted by nightmarish images of dead and injured infants. You cannot discuss, explain away, or respond in any reasoned sense, in the face of such pictures. They numb conversation leaving only outrage and shock in their wake. The problem lies in the fact that they mostly come without context; in identifying the casualties, the circumstances of their deaths, and in describing the nature of the conflict itself. For the most part these images are stripped of anything which might explain – while not diminishing – such deaths.

Added to that, is the fact that many of the images being circulated are unverifiable and of uncertain provenance. Some are being disseminated with the deliberate intent to deceive. The BBC’s Jon Donnison was caught out in unwittingly tweeting an image he believed to be from Gaza but which was in fact originally from Syria.

The unreasoned hysteria in discussing events in Gaza and Israel, combined with the flood of immediate postings from the conflict zone, has resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’. This means publishing the most immediate, striking, provocative and shocking image that can be found to reinforce a given point. These range from the gruesome to the bizarre, including a tweet I recently saw, seemingly suggesting Israel’s responsibility for a bleeding horse lacking milk for her foal.

The military conflict in and around Gaza is particularly intense, as is the media war. It is – in all senses – asymmetric, pitting wildly differing forces against each other, both of which differ in their aims, tactics and standards. In the military sphere it is lives that are being lost and shattered. In terms of the media, it is journalistic integrity, reliability and understanding that are the main casualties in this battle for hearts and minds. In their place have come hate, prejudice and hysteria which are now spilling far beyond the Middle East to the streets of Europe, and elsewhere.