Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Depressing Thought

Ab Schuster was 5 when, in 1942, he and his family were rounded up during an Amsterdam razzia and sent to the Westerbork transit camp. From there they were deported to Bergen-Belsen.
His wartime story is told in an article in a Dutch daily, “De Telegraaf” (April 29, 2017).
The whole article is very interesting. However, it is the last part of his wartime experiences that has stuck in my mind.
In April 1945 as the allies were closing in on nearby Hannover, the Germans decided to move the prisoners to Theresienstadt that was then farther away from the front line.
There were three trains that left Bergen-Belsen on April 10, 1945.
The first two were stopped within days by the allies and the prisoners freed.
Ab was on the third train that is referred to as "The Lost Train", since allied bombings prevented it from going to Theresienstadt and instead it ambled, seemingly aimlessly, through eastern Germany. After two weeks it was stopped by the Russians.
600 of the 2,500 people on the train died, mainly from malnutrition.
A month after being freed, Ab and the other Dutch prisoners were put onto American trucks and driven back to the Netherlands. They were housed in a castle that was guarded by “marechaussee” (Royal Military Constabulary). This is a Dutch gendarmerie force performing military police and civil police duties.
When the trucks arrived at the castle, Ab heard one marechaussee talking to a colleague.
He said, “Oh, there they are again. Could they not have gassed them all?”
Ab is now 80. He has not been sleeping well for the last ten years. No more than two or three hours a night.
Those words in Dutch from the marechaussee reverberate the loudest.
I live near a synagogue in Amsterdam. It is guarded by marechaussee. If they were given the order, they would round up the Jews inside instead of protecting them. Not that much has changed. 
A depressing thought.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Copycat bomb threats

I went from cleaning/painting ships in the north of Amsterdam to international coordinator for computer parts at Honeywell International, a computer time-sharing organization.

How I got the job is a bit strange.
It was 1970. Since I had arrived in the Netherlands nine months earlier, I had been doing manual work. I wanted to do something else, so I sent a letter to all the international companies at Schiphol Airport offering my services.
I was invited for an interview by the manager of Honeywell International. He was a con artist (I found that out later) who maintained that he had been a British army paratrooper and had fought against the insurgency in Cyprus.
He asked me trick paratrooper questions like, how do you parachute into sea? I answered his questions correctly and he gave me the job.

This is before the age of the PC. Companies did not then have their own computers. They used to buy time on a computer with time-sharing organizations like Honeywell.
Computer time-sharing was a relatively new market with teething troubles.

Honeywell had a computer network throughout western Europe. The national subsidiaries had their own small warehouses for computer parts.
There was a rudimentary automatized system that supplied these warehouses from the much bigger central warehouse in the entrepot building at Schiphol, where I worked. We received our parts from Texas.

More often than not, something went wrong with the supply chain to the national subsidiaries. As a result, there were always some computers that were not functioning properly. Then there was the nightmare scenario of computer "down".
That is when I came in. I had to find replacements for the malfunctioning parts anywhere and get them to the national branches as soon as possible.

The above is a long introduction for a short story.
This is the time of left-wing terrorist organizations. There was a spate of bomb threats to buildings in and around Amsterdam. The media, even then, went overboard with their coverage of the threats, giving them exaggerated publicity.
This lead to a lot of copycat bomb threats.

One of my colleagues, Dieter, was a German gay man who had moved to the Netherlands because life was more difficult for openly gay people in Germany.
He was friendly and extremely intelligent with a rather morbid sense of humour.
We did not do the same work but we had our desks, together with two other people, in the same room. 

Dieter and a colleague were listening to the umpteenth discussion about the bomb threats on the radio. They were laughing and joking about them.
For no apparent reason Dieter picked up the phone, dialed the office and in a muffled voice said there was a bomb in the building.
Then he put down the phone and started chuckling.
I did not say anything. I just sat there shocked, with wide open eyes.
A few minutes later, we heard the sirens of the police cars and ambulances.

The manager came in and said that there had been a bomb threat and we would have to leave the building.
Dieter now seemed to realize what he had done. He looked terrified.
He went into the manager's office and told him it was all a practical joke. The police and ambulances were called off.

He was fired immediately.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Choosing an identity

At the age of 12, I started Sunday Hebrew classes at the “local” synagogue in Streatham, a south London suburb.  
I was not enthusiastic because it was a (too) long bus journey from West Norwood where we lived.
Yes, there were also Jews living in West Norwood: us.

A few years later at my grammar school in Brixton, another south London district, I studied Jewish history for an A-level in Religious Knowledge. I enjoyed that.
It was mainly stories of adventure and sex during the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties.

My Sunday sojourn at Streatham shul included a very different kind of Jewish history class. It was one long, seemingly unending, story of persecution of Jews in Europe.
Two examples from Italy have always stuck in my memory.
In medieval Rome the weakest member of the Jewish community would be thrust naked into a nail-spiked barrel and rolled down the hill to his death.
During carnival at the time of the Counter Reformation, Jews in Rome, especially fattened for the occasion, were pelted with mud by the crowds and made to run naked through the streets in the icy cold and rain.

Besides that, there were the Holocaust stories. The really gruesome ones. I can only remember parts of these stories. I try not to remember the rest.

There were reasons for this intensive confrontation with a horrific past.
The Holocaust was not yet history. It was a recent occurrence and the pain and horror was still deeply felt. 
These stories were warnings of what could happen again and why we Jews should stick together, stay in the community. Jew-hatred was an indelible part of the outside society.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries most Jews in Eastern Europe lived in small market towns called shtetls. The word “shtetl” is Yiddish, and it means “little town.”
The Jewish people I knew, like most of the diaspora at that time, had the same attitude to persecution as these extinct shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe. They saw themselves as passive victims who could not do anything about the persecution and relied on the compassion of others for protection.

There was an alternative to the shtetl Jew. The new Jew of the political Zionists. They rejected the passive victim role and the ghetto mentality. They maintained that Jews should become masters of their own destiny.

As a teenager I had to choose which identity I wanted. The shtetl Jew or the political Zionist. I chose for the political Zionist.
I was never any good at that passive victim stuff.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Revolution and the western media

Size and number of demonstrations do not say anything without the right context.
A prime example was the million people demonstrations at Tahrir square in Cairo. The so-called Egyptian spring.

According to the western media, this was the Egyptian people rising up; a revolution of "we the people".
At the elections after the overthrow of Mubarak, parties associated with the demonstrations received less than 10% of the vote.
Western pundits and media should have expected this.
There was a Pew research into views of sharia punishments. Around 82% of Egyptian Muslims supported chopping off of hands for theft, stoning for adultery and the death penalty for leaving the Muslim religion.
The western media downplayed the Pew research results because these results did not fit the narrative they were selling.

Fast forward to the first week of the reign of Donald Trump. He won the presidency with 45,9% of the popular vote.
Gallup has a daily tracking poll of his approval-disapproval rate with a margin of error of ±3 percentage points.
Trump is a divisive figure, a bully who insults women and mocks people with a handicap. There has been no presidential honeymoon. He has never had a higher approval rate than his share of the popular vote.
There are lots of large demonstrations against him. The media feeds up a constant daily barrage of anti-Trump articles, that have reached a frenzy of hyperbole since his executive order on immigration.
A family member of mine who has been watching it all, said that the overwhelming majority of Americans hate him. He should resign.

Is this the case? Is he now opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans?
According to the Gallup poll his approval rate has dropped 2% to 43% in the last week. His disapproval rate has risen 4% and now stands at 50%, (it had peaked at 51%).

These are pretty dismal figures, but a 50% disapproval rate does not correspond to a country rising up against him. Most of those marching never supported him.
The media want to give the impression of an approaching “revolution”. Who knows it might work.

BTW, Gallup has now published Obama’s average job approval as president: 47.9%

Sunday, 22 January 2017

First comments on the new president.

Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States.
Time for a few first comments.
Another title for this post could be, the man who would be Andrew Jackson. 

Donald Trump is a bully. He insults women and mocks people with a handicap.
Not a nice person and certainly no role model for my grandchildren.
Still, being a bully and boorish does not disqualify anybody from becoming president. There have been quite a few successful unsavory presidents. 
President Warren Harding had a very young mistress, Nan Britton, throughout his presidency. She even gave birth to his illegitimate child.
Britton wrote a book about the relationship. One famous passage told of their making love in a coat closet in the executive office of the White House.

Trump does not model himself after Mussolini or Hitler, as some would have you believe, but after the populist president Andrew Jackson.
They have the same temper, but there are differences. Trump gets into twitter fights. Jackson carried a gun and shot people in duels.
Jackson pledged to sweep corruption out of Washington, comparing it to the Herculean task of mucking out a “giant Augean stable.” The pledge has a direct parallel to Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp,”

Trump has the vanity of president John Adams, who was also highly sensitive to criticism, though Adams wanted to be called Emperor and outlaw a free press. Trump has not proposed this.

What does the new President stand for? That depends on who you ask. His trademark is unpredictability.
He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.
More a cuckoo who nested in the Republican party to become president. He has no coherent political ideology. He is a pragmatist and a wheeler-dealer.

His behavior is not exactly consistant. In the run up to the elections he said Hillary Clinton was a crook who should be locked up.
Now he asks people to give her a standing ovation.

Much has been made of his use of “America first” in his inauguration speech. Some media have even put this in a neo-Nazi context.
He first used the theme in April 2016 arguing that America’s post-Cold War foreign policy had “veered badly off course,” leading to wrongheaded Middle East interventions.
The “America first” approach downgrades the value of America’s global leadership and traditional alliances.
“We defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own, and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay..”
This is the right context not the neo-Nazi story.

On many issues nobody really knows where Trump stands. That is the way he wants it. It benefits his negotiating position.
I expect using this aura of unpredictability to bully organizations and countries will become a trademark of his administration.

Actually, nothing about Trump is really new, even his unpredictability.  
It used to be called the “madman theory” and was a feature of Richard Nixon's foreign policy. Nixon and his administration tried to make the leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations think he was irrational and volatile.
According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.
It worked for president Nixon and it might work for president Trump. Though for Trump it is a negotiating method not a theory.

I think his biggest problem is the internal division in the US. He did not create this, it was evident under Obama.
However, he has exacerbated it. Irrational, volatile and unpredictable do not work well when trying to bridge differences.

If he does not try to heal the divisions, the country may fall apart. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Diamonds, Jews and Gays

The Diamond neighbourhood in Amsterdam is named after the Jewish workers in the diamond industry who used to make up the population there before the Holocaust. 
It has many special buildings and monuments in the Amsterdam School style of architecture.
Nowadays it is mainly populated by ethnic Moroccans.

All the Jews have left. No recognizable Jews would enter the neighbourhood. If they did, they would be lucky to escape with only spittle on their faces. 
However, it may begin with the Jews, but it never stops there.

The Diamond neighbourhood became notorious some ten years ago because of reports that ethnic Moroccan youths were intimidating, harassing and driving out other inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Their main prey was the LBGT community.

“Streetcornerwork” is a Dutch organization that works with at-risk youth, also in the Diamond neighbourhood. One morning an agitated young man walked into the Streetcornerwork office of a friend of mine. 
He told him the following story.

He was gay, had never had any problems with the youths and was upset with the negative reports about the neighbourhood in the media. He thought it was all very Islamophobic. 
So he decided to do something about it.
He went on local television and told his story: he was gay, enjoyed living in the neighbourhood and had never had any problems with the youths. 

He received a lot of positive and supportive feedback after his television appearance. 

A few days later when walking to the shops he passed a group of ethnic Moroccan youths who started to hurl insults at him. 
After that, every time the youths saw him, they would insult and threaten him.
Things came to a head when he went to buy chips at the local snackbar. There was a larger group there and they started jostling him. 

He was scared and ran away. 

He could not understand what was going on. My friend explained it to him.
For him and people with his norms and values, harassing gays and forcing them out of the neighbourhood was a bad thing. 
He thought he was defending the youths when he spoke on the local television.

However, for the youths, harassing gays and forcing them out was a good thing. They were proud of what they were doing. According to them, gays were polluting their neighbourhood. 
They found his appearance on television insulting and a provocation. He had insulted their honour and they would not stop until they had forced him to leave the neighbourhood.

My friend offered to ask the housing corporation to find him a flat in another neighbourhood. He accepted the offer.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The reaffirmation of IDF ethics

An IDF sergeant has been found guilty of shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant “without reason”. 
Certain elements of this case resonate with me because of a past experience. They may be very different but both this case and my experience are in essence about the reaffirmation of IDF ethics. 

One part of the Zionist dream has been fulfilled. Jews have become a “normal” people in their own state. Unfortunately, normal also means that Israel has its fair share of (potential) criminals and murderers. The prisons are full.
The bad people are also called up. They become soldiers as well.

I met a sadist in the IDF.
It is 1966 and I am serving in a special paratrooper base. It is tough.
It has been called suicide base. There was an incident where a soldier ground up razor blades and ate them. I am not sure if this story is true or just a legend.
I did know someone who never used to clean his mess tin because he said he wanted to get jaundice.

The sadist was our platoon sergeant (there were three squads). His name was Velvella. He was a short, stocky man of Moroccan ethnicity who also used to give us unarmed combat training.
During the day he had little to do.  He used to wait until the night when we were allowed to go to bed. Then he would keep us up half the night by making us clean things and extra inspections.

He knew who the weakest were and he used to give them humiliating punishments.
One of his favourites was “walking like a whore”. Then the soldier would have to squat, hold his rifle above his head and walk about. After a bit this would become very tiring. If the soldier stopped or fell over he would kick him. He would punch soldiers if they were not quick enough.

I remember one incident. It had been raining and the whole area was muddy. He ordered one of his favourite victims to crawl through the mud. He thought he was not crawling fast enough, so he started kicking him. The soldier suddenly began to scream and the mud started turning red. He had to be taken to hospital.

We did not get on. He did not try those punishments on me but said he was filing complaints against me for insubordination. As there were so many complaints, he said, my prison sentence would be very long and I would be sent to a special prison.

Velvella was aggressive towards everybody, even his own family. I had a friend who worked in the office. He said he overheard Velvella phoning his wife.
He told her he would not be coming home until late, because he would be fucking the female officers.

One time we were sent up north in trucks with full gear. It was for an infiltration raid in Lebanon. A mine had exploded on a football pitch near the border.
At the last moment the raid was called off and instead we lay in diamond form ambushes all night.
I heard that Velvella was really angry that he did not get the chance to kill anybody. On the way back he saw a pack of wild dogs. He chased after them in his jeep and shot them. 

The net result of Velvella’s influence on my platoon was that we moved about like sleep-deprived zombies and we had an astronomical percentage of AWOL (Absent Without Leave).
I used to talk about this with a corporal from another platoon. How we met is another story. He was dati, religious. His surname was Goren and he was a relative of the Chief –Rabbi at the time.

Our base received a new commanding officer. He did not understand how our platoon could have such a high AWOL. He started asking questions.
Goren told him what was going on. He was the whistle-blower. He told him to speak to me.

I was informed that the commanding officer wanted to see me. I did not have to go to his office he would come to me.
Everybody knew why he was coming and people started pressuring me to keep my mouth shut. There were no threats. It was more stuff like, we get the best food and we can solve the problem without outsiders.

The commanding officer turned up and took me to one side. He asked questions about the situation and I told him what I had witnessed.
Then he said to me, “why didn’t you shoot him?”.
I had not expected that question and did not have a real answer.
He continued by saying that we were the first generation after the Holocaust and the IDF was not the German army. We had a high moral code and that is what made us different from the Germans and Arabs.
He said that if I ever witnessed an IDF soldier being punched or kicked I should shoot whoever was doing it. “Tell them afterwards that I gave you permission”.

After listening to him I had two dominant emotions.
The first was shame that I had done nothing to stop what was going on.
My second emotion was pride. The pride of belonging to the IDF, an army with such high ethics.

Fifty years later an IDF sergeant has been found guilty of manslaughter by a military court for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant “without reason”.
I am not comparing sergeant Azaria to Velvella. I am comparing the IDF reaction in two cases with a gap of fifty years.
Not right-wing or left-wing, just the reaffirmation of the same IDF ethics. A resounding answer to those who accuse the IDF of heinous crimes.
According to a poll, 67% of Israelis want sergeant Azaria to be pardoned. The judges who convicted him have been threatened and now have to be protected.
The country, not the IDF, has changed. And I do not think for the better.