Tuesday, August 12, 2014

No Comment

Over the last month, there have been disturbances, let's say, in the Middle East. These disturbances are not small regional ripples, soon forgotten as the world finds other things to talk about.
As everyone knows, I have just returned from Jerusalem - in fact, about a week before I left - three boys were kidnapped. A  friend said that she thought they were dead. I didn't believe her and I was wrong. Shortly after, a deranged man murdered and set fire to an Arab boy, and Operation Protective Edge began.
A caliphate has been declared in what was eastern Syria and northern Iraq by an organisation whose thirst for blood and conquest outmatches anything the world has seen for a generation and is reminiscent of the early struggle for Islamic identity in the seventh century.
Millions of words have been written, hundreds of pundits have given us the benefit of their opinions on social media, blogs, TV and radio. Journalistic integrity has been compromised. Foreign politicians have thrown the weight of their country's moral outrage at either camp, for or against. What can I possibly add to an already overinflated debate?

For what it is worth, then, and in no particular order, this is what I have learned.

Rhetoric, both for and against, has been more savage and intemperate than at almost any time in my living memory. 

Many people believe that holding pro-Zionist opinions is tantamount to selling your soul to Beelzebub.

Anti-Semitism, defined as unreasoning hatred of Jews just because they are Jewish is alive and well, and the demonic forces that drive it are becoming bolder. Capitals all over the world saw and continue to see well-funded and well-organised "protests" which for the most part are thinly veiled excuses for fomenting anarchy and disorder as disparate and disaffected social groups find a common cause against which they can mobilise. If the protesters actually got what they wanted, Israel would cease to exist.

It is dangerous to be openly Jewish in some places in Europe. It is quite reasonable for Muslim enclaves in European towns and cities to fly the Palestinian flag, since offending Muslims cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

History means whatever you want it to mean and nobody is bothering to read it. Hence, words like 'occupation' have gained undeserved currency, since manipulation of the masses isn't particularly difficult and the volume of opinion so fuelled lends the same distorted legitimacy that Goebbels used to such great effect in the 1930's regardless of right or wrong. "Let me control the media and I will turn any nation into a herd of pigs", he wrote.

Trading land for peace won't work. It didn't work in 2005 and the Israelis have long memories.

A belief in evil is a subjective matter. The entity known as Hamas is simply evil undiluted. As a political machine, it rides, rough-shod, over those who brought it to power. Its supporters use public money to build tunnels instead of roads, use public buildings to wage war and it deliberately places civilians in harm's way, using them as human shields, with no apparent regard for their safety, hiding behind a flawed interpretation of their holy book. They have told the world, loud and clear, that Gazan lives are cheap.

Israelis can and will continue to protect their population. This means that she will be charged with war crimes, the adjudication for which will be in the hands of those who wish her destruction.

Militant Islam suffers no bedfellows. It murders, tortures and sweeps from its path all those who dare to hold any opinion or practice any faith other than its own.

Th events of the last month or so have caused a profound paradigm shift in me, and I understand, in others. Please don't bother commenting - share your outrage elsewhere in places where it may be more widely read. 

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But, perhaps it is the end of the beginning.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Game Beautiful

In the beginning...
Futbol. Footie. The Beautiful Game. The poetry of grown men kicking a bladder around a field, even an exotic South American one, leaves me yawning, tepidly. A few weeks ago, a friend squeaked excitedly that she was going to the World Cup which no doubt cost her fiancĂ© a great deal of money. She apparently has tickets for two matches, the protagonists in both being unknown and dependent on elimination from earlier rounds, so she has to decide on the spot what colour she's going to wear. In the last week of school - international schools are so much fun - students emblazoned their faces with flags of their home countries and some staff were unsporting enough to send them to the washroom to clean up, on the grounds, presumably, that Germany's chances that afternoon were less important than vulgar fractions. Some say that football is a matter of life and death. The diehards would respond with "Oh, no. It's much more serious than that." The historical record is, however beyond dispute. In 1314, complaints by London merchants led Edward ll to issue a proclamation banning football in London because, "...there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; yea, we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future. Local towns banned it on the grounds that whole villages inflated a pig's bladder and kicked it and each other up and down the main street until people dropped from exhaustion or were trampled to death by their neighbours, which I have to say, does sound remarkably unsportsmanlike. In the early 1600's we read "With the 'fotebale'...[there] hath beene greate disorder in our towne of Manchester we are told, and glasse windowes broken yearlye and spoyled by a companie of lewd and disordered persons.  Hate to tell you, sport, but, there still is. Shakespeare had little time for it, either.  This from King Lear : "... you base football player" (1 iv).
Must get one, must get one...
James the First's "Book of Sports", on the other hand, encouraged people to play after church on the Sabbath, presumably in a spirit of love, tolerance and forgiveness and also because he hated the Puritans who liked their Sabbaths gloomy.

There are worse things, of course. I read the other day that American football is like prostitution where people ruin their bodies for the entertainment of complete strangers and savage violence is interspersed by committee meetings, surely the two worst attributes of American society. Still, this time around, the USA soccer team - why must they still call it that - made it to the last sixteen, only losing to plucky little Belgium. Shame, really.
"Our Father"

Postscript: as I was writing this last night the host nation were being unmercifully thrashed in an historic 7-1 defeat by the iron men of Germany who barrelled through a flimsy Brazilian defence like a Panzerfaust. The hosts' ramshackle performance means that careers will be ruined, bucketsful of tears shed and humble pie will be on the menu for months. Oh, well. It's only a game, as Mr Cholmondely-Walker was fond of saying. Pass the shag, gentlemen.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Momentary Me

I've been having a few randomly retrospective thoughts about some of my classes - something which I suppose all ex-teachers do, especially if they're in their educational dotage like me and prone to wandering off in mental flights of fancy into the undergrowth of the past. Small schools are better than large ones. Small classes are better than large ones, because in both cases, you get to know the student body very well, even those that you don't come across in class, and also because, by default, the student body gets to know you as well. Not the cardboard cutout , the squeaking posturer, the Nazi of discipline, but the momentary you, the you that  has been released to be human rather than the ironclad disciplinary machine, grinding the quadratics till the pips squeak and to hell with mixed metaphors, the laggers, slackers and irremediably stupid. Which tends to cause one to teeter towards "favouritism". Like "racism", "sexism" , "elitism" or any of the other "isms" in which the PC thought police love to entrap us, having a favourite means that you're BAD. 
What total eyewash.
I have a favourite shirt, pair of shoes, cologne, even day of the week, but because my favourite is animate, it is no longer appropriate to admit to having it. All my students fell, I suppose, into three categories: favourite, not favourite and "meh". Categorisation of these students was entirely subjective, as changeable as British weather and often spectacularly random. Admitting to such behaviour in school is like mooning in front of a crowd of Grade 10's - not really recommended. I'd confess in private if I had to, but I'd rather be caught stealing the office manager's stash of Nespresso capsules than be accused of treating students differently depending on their current 'favourite' status. That sort of thing would make me the kind of shoddy, attention seeking pseud that people complain to their therapist about. Even having a non-favourite has a certain masochistic charm about it. Oh, yes. You know who you are.
Aviator moment

My Grade 9's decided to smart up for Graduation, some in full evening dress. It was decided that we'd have an 'aviator moment' - they always were quite an enterprising group.  I hoped that they were happy that it was the end of the semester and not that we were parting company. They gave me more trouble than some and more joy than most. Farewells were genuine and heartfelt. I am going to miss all of them.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Green to Blue

Awaiting the blue
As many of you know, we have a swimming pool. Arriving after a long absence and removing the covers revealed, instead of irridescent clear blue waters, a bilious pond in a remarkably unpleasant shade of bright green, opaque and oily. This was clearly not good. We consulted the oracle, the fountain of all wisdom, namely the Internet. There was much discussion about cause, effect and solution, some being contradictory. After silently and alternately cursing and praying, I reminded myself that I was a scientist. I'm supposed to be good at this sort of thing, but I have to confess, I was not aware that ownership and maintenance of a swimming pool required an advanced degree in inorganic chemistry. As a child, I learned to swim at the local "baths" - probably so called because the cleansing effect of the bleach was more valuable to public health than the swimming lessons. The water was so inoculated against infection by massive doses of sodium hypochlorite that one's skin wrinkled in a heartbeat and placing one's face underwater risked complete and permanent exfilation of the vitreous humour. In other words, step one, bleach. We had some, but not enough. A twenty-kilometre drive to the pool shop revealed a staggering array of chemical treatments, all sold in ten litre tubs. School chemistry involves careful measurement in milligrams and millilitres, with clean spatulae and spotless glassware. All that seemed to be required here was a medium sized shovel. There was an entire section devoted, optimistically, to something called PH. I assumed this was the agricultural version of the logarithm to base 10 of the hydrogen ion concentration, or pH, which I gathered was of some significance. I bought a pH tester, with a colour chart resembling nothing I had ever seen before; the pH values it tested were between 6.8 and 8.2, with an optimum of 7.2 to 7.6. The colour was off the scale. I calculated the requisite dose of pH (-) to increase the acidity. After a heavy storm, I repeated the test, to find that it was now off the scale in the other direction. Well, you get the idea. Opening another huge tub of alkali, I somewhat despondently added some. Flocculation is a process whereby colloids come out of suspension to form flakes. In other words the murky water contained microparticles that were too fine to pass through the filter unless I bought another tub of overpriced stuff labelled "clarifying agent", which, the blurb told me helpfully, would restore my pool water to a beautifully crystal clear condition. After, it said at the end, I had thoroughly swept the bottom of the pool, which I can't see, with a brush.

France lost to Germany and I am now going to sit in a corner with a book and twitch a bit, if that's OK with everyone.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Finding Shekhinah

AISJ June 2014
It's raining. Not the deluge, more the "gentle rain from heaven". Having recently returned, this is indeed a bracha. As Jerusalem turns brown, Paris is greened. Parting - the "sweet sorrow"- was not exactly painful, more like a necessary disengagement, although the pull is almost electromagnetically strong.

A modern ocarina
An ocarina is a small, ancient clay flute which, if correctly intonated, makes a pure, perfectly pitched note. My time in Israel in so many ways felt like that. With little effort, something beautiful could be achieved, something lasting could be left behind. My presence had resonance, if you will, I did not fetch up accidentally on Israeli shores as if vomited out by a great fish. I am often asked questions at home about why I went - wherein lies the attraction in a dusty little Middle Eastern country with a few ancient tourist attractions? At first thought, it's easy to answer. I could reply in the context of its being the birthplace of the Old Testament stories, or the New Testament renditions of the life of Christ. To those whose belief systems are not consonant with these ideas, a trip to the Kinneret is just a visit to a lake. A walk around the Old City is a pleasant diversion into the medieval, much like Lucca or Florence. Here, however, there is a cry, a source of hope or "makor ha-tikvah' down through the ages which I am romantic enough to want to hear. 
The Pope's prayer is still there
Beside the Western Wall, or Kotel, the last remaining stones of the outer retaining wall of the Second Temple, there is an explanatory sign briefly narrating the building and destruction of the First and Second Temples. It points out that the Temple Mount is the resting place of the foundation stone of the earth, and above it rested the Ark of the Covenant. It then concludes, paraphrasing, "the Presence never moves from the Western Wall. Jews have prayed here for centuries."In Hebrew, the word for "presence" is transliterated "Shekhinah" - from the root verb 'to inhabit', often used in the context of the nesting place of a bird. The place where, if anywhere, God 'is'. In a very Jewish sense, I found myself asking the question to which I already knew the answer. 'Why are you here?' I am here because I am bereft, poor, miserable, cold, hungry, naked, tired and lonely and I want to go home. Not literally, but metaphorically, God has made a way for all to find home, scanning the night for the pinprick of light to guide their path.
Judi Dench as 'Philomena'.
For some time, I had wanted to watch "Philomena". It is the story of an Irish Catholic girl in the early 1950's who, after sinfully experimenting with sex, finds herself pregnant and in the care of Catholic nuns with a taste for the retributive aspect of penance. With the help of a famous British journalist, she attempts to track down her fifty year old son, taken from her without her consent and put up for adoption by the convent. Being an adoptee myself, I know about the strangely shaped holes it leaves in one's personality. I know something of how a mother might have felt when her flesh and blood was snatched away, and how cavities remain in the hearts of us both, she and I. Good adoptive parents notwithstanding, there is an indefinable psychological cord which binds us to our genetic history. Many spend their lives trying to find it, sometimes with no idea what they are really looking for. Being in Israel is a lot like finding the cord. Judaism is the bedrock of Christianity - those who trumpet replacement theology need to look more carefully at their source material. Until the fourth century, distinguishing a Jew from the pejoratively named Christian was not straightforward, indeed, perhaps, impossible. The multiple facets of both faiths even today blur the edges of both. When I was in Israel, I felt as if I belonged. Not to the land, the state or the people, but to the cultivated olive tree into which I was able as an adopted son to be grafted. Even vagabonds have resting places somewhere.