Tuesday, May 15, 2018


Rabbi Donniel Hartman's Blog on the Times of Israel page describes the ambivalence that confronts everybody who is troubled by the casualties on the Gaza border, yet sees no immediate solution to the lethal confrontation. It is not that sixty people were killed in one day, or that some fifty people were killed since the beginning of the protest, had one person been killed it would have been one too many. I feel for the Israeli soldiers, one of whom may be my grandson, who are ordered to shoot to kill to prevent a breach of the Israeli border. They have to bear the burden of guilt for taking a life. Yet I don't want to contemplate the slaughter that would ensue if the militants of Gaza would breach the border and rampage through Israel. I believe in Israel's right to exist. Despite those who refuse to accept Israel's existence and want to relitigate the history of the last seventy years, Israel is there, a prosperous democratic middle-eastern country. The problem is that the hatred of Jews, the delegitimization  of Israel has no cost to the perpetrators. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the other Arab countries that waged war against the nascent State of Israel seventy years ago, put the issue of Palestinian refugees in the too hard basket. Over the years they have persecuted, murdered Palestinian refugees, isolated them from the rest of their society, resisted their absorption and assimilation, but used them to confront domestic issues that had real costs. Syria is fractured, Persia is divided with the chasm between the urban cultured Persians and the impoverished underdeveloped and superstitious countryside can only be contained by the use of force, but painting Israel as the source of the problems unifies the warring factions.  There were 13 million refugees after the Second World War, which included a million Jewish refugees, there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees that fled from Arab lands. They were all absorbed over the years. The only ones who remain refugees to this day are the Palestinians, because it suited the rest of the worlds to keep them separate, keep them in refugee camps. Palestinians and Israelis could live side by side in prosperous cooperation, were it not be in the interest of others to foment this antagonism. I feel sorry for the Arab young men and some women, who in desperation seek a martyr's death in the frontier, though not for those who take their children to expose them to the danger and should they be killed in the skirmish use their death for propaganda. I feel sorry for the young Israeli soldiers who are tasked with holding back the rabble trying to breach the border. I feel for the people of Ashkelon, Ashdod, southern Israel, who would be in imminent danger should the Palestinians rampage across the border. My only hope is that by next week this confrontation will be old news, that the leaders of Hamas would think of those killed and sit down with the Israelis, the Egyptians. the Jordanians, and above all, with their brothers in Judea and Samaria and work towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict and try to achieve a better, prosperous life for their people. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Meaning of words

I have a whole portfolio of writing, stories I wrote over many years. Inspired recently partly by reading Vincent O'Sullivan's new book, All this by chance, and other books I have been reading, I revisited one of these stories Meaning of words that I wrote some years ago and revised it. Think of this blog as workshopping my writing and I would welcome comments.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Liberal humanist ideals

Some years ago I posted a blog about the Relevance of teaching about the Holocaust. I can't remember what prompted this post, but my brother, who is also involved in Holocaust education, in Japan, recalled it, and now. I shared it with volunteers and educators at the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. It is now posted among the Blogs on its website. It prompted the question by one of my respected senior colleagues asking me what I meant by "embracing the liberal humanist ideals that permeated Western culture". It is a fair question. If I can't explain it to a high school student  it has no meaning for educators. Perhaps I should only use the term “humanist”, the word “liberal” is redundant except in so far it refers to the concept of freedom as understood in the last 300 years, but “humanist' means for me some specific ideas.
  • It asserts the right of every human being, as distinct from the group the individual belongs to. Every human being is valued, respected and has rights not as a member of a group, a nation, an ethnic group, a class, or rank, but as a discreet individual.
  • Knowledge is based on empirical experience, not on dogma. Knowledge is not absolute and unchangeable, it needs to be constantly evaluated in light of empirical evidence.
I don't know whether this clarifies what I wrote. It is open to discussion, and like most of the things I assert, to argument. So bring it on. Let's argue. That is part of the privilege implied  "humanism".

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Paul Wah's Thin slice of heaven

I have known Paul Wah for something like sixty years. I can't recall whether it was Teachers' College or university, but we go back many years. Our paths have crossed from time to time. When I received an invitation to the launch of his new book A thin slice of heaven, I looked forward to meeting there some people from my long distant past. Paul published his autobiography Wooden man Stone Heart five years ago. It traced his story from the grocer's boy in a small Taranaki town to his very successful career in education. For the last five years he worked on his historical novel that had probably certain parallels with the story of his own great-grandfather and grandfather. A Chinese immigrant, a successful merchant in New Zealand, goes back to the village in China he came from and takes his grandson with him to give him a Chinese education. There the grandson is abducted by bandits. A lot of cowboys and Indians murder, mayhem and bloodshed enhances the action, but in the end the grandson is saved, the ransom money is not called on, and grandfather and grandson return to peaceful prosperous New Zealand. There are vivid descriptions of the simple life and poverty in the Chinese village, as well as the breakdown of law and order. For the villagers, New Zealand is the Golden Mountain. But there is a dark side to the lives of Chinese in New Zealand, gambling and opium, which ruined the business that the grandfather bequeathed to his son. 

It took five years for Paul to research and write this book. He explained that he wrote it for the Chinese children of a younger generation in New Zealand to tell them about their roots and heritage. I, as a Jewish immigrant saw parallels between the stories of Chinese and Jewish immigrants. Being like everyone else, assimilating, had a price to pay. The looked down on  tailor in the back street tailoring shop, or the garment worker, the hawker trying to make a living from the back of a cart, the labourer working long hours too make a living and get out of poverty and give his children a better chance in life, was probably a man learned in Talmud, speaking five languages, but with an accented version of the the Queens or the BBC's English. In many ways, the Chinese became the new Jews. The former image of the Chinaman, who for my grandmother was synonymous with the greengrocer became in this generation the image of the doctor, the successful lawyer, the brilliant musician, the overachiever, and the Chinese mother became the Tiger Mother, the driven Jewish mother of a generation ago. The great difference is that the descendant of Chinese immigrants has a village in China to go back to, where remnants of his family history is still remembered. The roots of the Jewish immigrants have been almost without exception annihilated, destroyed, and the people in these places had betrayed their Jewish neighbours that had so enriched their world. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Refugees in South Tel Aviv

Refugees are a world wide problem. This week's discussion that Rabbi Mizrahi organised focused on Israel's refugee problem. Ann Beaglehole outlined the international convention on refugees, who is a refugee, a displaced person, an economic refugee, and all the other terms used for people who for one reason or another had to get away from their homeland. There are some 50,000 refugees in South Tel Aviv. Most of them are from Africa, predominantly from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. Many of them had been there for some years. There are no more arriving because Israel put in place a border fence and came to an agreement with Egypt whereby Egyptians shoot refugees on sight. Now Israel is negotiating with Rwanda and Uganda to take the refugees already in Israel. Why someone who fled one of the war turn countries in Africa would want to give up a relatively peaceful life in Israel to move to yet another unstable country in Africa is a question Israeli politicians do not address. All over the world, refugees are useful punching bags for politicians who face difficult problems that they want to divert attention from. Don't worry about public corruption, concern yourself about the problems of getting rid of 50,000 benighted, impoverished, harassed Africans in Tel Aviv. Israel of course has a vast wealth of experience in settling refugees. These refugees make up the fibre of Israeli society. But these were refugees who were more or less Jewish, or claimed to be Jewish. They were not necessarily upright, moral citizens. Some were criminals and introduced international crime to a country that was largely proud of its ethical record. The Halacha is clear, the strangers among you have to be accepted and accorded rights. Ann suggested that the answer to the refugee problem is to convert them all, let them be Jewish refugees. Arguing that the treatment of refugees in israel is not worse than it is in many countries of Europe or the treatment of boat people by Australia is an argument hard to accept. Israel is a country of refugees and must do better than others.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Taika Waititi and racism

Taika Waititi, also known as Taika Cohen described New Zealand as a racist country (DomPost April 10, A5) and undoubtedly racial profile occurs. People have their mindset about Maoris, Polynesians, Chinese, Indians, Africans, Middle Easterns, and these mindsets are not based on personal experiences or scientific knowledge, they are received opinions from  elders, mates, people around. Does mispronouncing Maori place names amount to racism? After all a generation earlier people, including such notable people as the conductor, Thomas Beecham, made a point of mispronouncing German and French names. Perhaps this was part of a British ethos, a snobbish pride in not being too intellectual, too smart for their own goods, characteristics associated with Europeans, and particularly Central European Jews. Anglicising European names somehow implied British and New Zealand superiority. Not even attempting to utter unfamiliar names, was a way of putting people in special boxes marked 'different'. Mispronouncing Maori names is in this category. But is it racism? When talking of racism Taika Cohen doesn't mention that he is Jewish. Jews know more about racism than most, but he doesn't mention antisemitism.  Is it because antisemitism is totally absent in New Zealand? I doubt it. It is just that New Zealand society is accepting, taking people as their are with all their different ways. Put the odd derogatory remark down to ignorance, put it down to ingrained prejudice, a relic from an older, obsolete social order. Shrug the odd racist incident off. Racial prejudice is ingrained in humans. Don't make a big thing of it provided it does not involve violence, or legal and economic discrimination. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Remembering and forgetting

It is appropriate that the Holocaust Centre should host Diana Whichtel talk about her book Driving to Treblinka a few days before Pesach, Passover. Pesach is about remembering the Exodus from Egypt. But we remember it as a miracle, as a mark of God's special relationship with the Jewish people. Diana Wichtel's book is about her search for a lost father. Her father escaped not from the land of bondage, but from a cattle car on a train taking him from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka to be murdered. That he managed to crawl through the small window of the cattle car, that he managed to jump off the train and not be killed by the fall, that he was not shot, not betrayed, managed to somehow join a partisan group in the forest and survive was a miracle. That he made it to America and join his cousins who were ready to help him was against the odds. Perhaps he had  too much faith in his ability to survive using his wits, living on his own resources. Finding a girl from New Zealand, much too young to appreciate all that he had been through, innocent of the slavery he witnessed, he thought that he found the promised land. But he was a damaged man. He was maimed by his experiences. He was charming, warm hearted, but the betrayals, the suspicions, and the sense of guilt were there shadowing him. His personal tragedy left its mark on his daughter. Many chose to try to forget the dark past. Living with harrowing memories is a burden inflicted on the survivors and their children who choose to remember. Jews are obligated to remember their ancestors as slaves in Egypt, but Diana, and others of her Second Generation group had a choice. They could remember, or forget. Diana Whitchel made the decision to seek out the scattered pieces of her father's life and remember.