Saturday, September 29, 2007

Israeli politics briefing

Tel Aviv from the air

The domestic setting to Israeli foreign policy is often ignored internationally or at least underplayed. My PhD work is basically an argument that you can't separate domestic and international politics (although my case-study is Finland not Israel), particularly not in the globalised world, and this is as true of Israel as anywhere else. Hence what follows is my take on the discussions and briefings we had with policymakers, academics, journalists and others on my recent visit to Israel.

The Israeli economy is hugely successful with growth being driven by high-technology industries, in which the IDF has cleverly involved itself. But this is leading to what a number of speakers called the core-periphery issue (and this is clearly seen by both the left and right) in which certain sectors of Israeli society have missed the high-tech boat and are now being left ever further behind. The periphery has ethnic, religious and geographical aspects to it. A major distinction within Israel is "Ashkenazi" and "Sephardi". The Ashkenazi Jews are generally those of the European descent, whilst the Sephardi are the Jews who came to Israel from the Mid-East and North Africa. Israel was predominantly formed by Ashkenazi and all of the early leaders in the Labour Party (the ruling party until 1977) were of that background. The Sephardi generally arrived in Israel later, after being thrown out of the Muslim states in response to the founding of Israel. Sephardi have seen themselves as second class citizens ever since and remain on average poorer and less educated. The town of Sderot, infamous for being the target of Qassam rocket attacks from the Gaza strip, is a particularly working-class, Sephardi town. Many there say that if it was a rich, white suburb of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv getting rocketed daily, there is no way the government would put up with it. The mayor of Gush Etzion, the settlement we visited in the West Bank not far from Jerusalem, held very similar views saying that the security issues they faced were mishandled by the government because they don’t care about the poor and the rural. The other major ethnic distinction to economic marginalisation is the “Soviet” Jews who emigrated mainly after 1990, and now make up a sixth of the population. Integration has not been wholly successful - as the recent arrest of a “Nazi” gang, made up of Russian-Israeli youths, suggests.

The religious division in the economy affects firstly the Israeli Arabs who face many problems in the technology industries because they can’t get security clearances. This is partly said to be straight prejudice from some parts of the Jewish majority, and partly to do with many of them using the Arab exemption from military service. Secondly, the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews do not take part in the standard state education system, and are also exempt from IDF service. The focus of their religious schools is on the Torah, with English, maths and sciences taking a back seat. This badly prepares orthodox children for taking part in the modern economy leading to economic marginalisation. Oddly, the argument has parallels to that over the Madrassas in Pakistan. At the same time the Orthodox Jews have large families, so this sector of society is becoming demographically more significant.

The political system is currently partially paralyzed, with increasingly unwieldy coalitions having to be formed as proportional representation produces an ever more diverse and fractured polity. The three biggest parties in the Knesset: Labour, Likud and Kadema still do not command a majority even if all vote together. So whilst the marginalized groups fail economically, they remain very influential politically as governments need them in coalitions. This makes the direction of Israeli politics very hard to predict. It also mean that the people of the Israel no longer wholly share its founding premises and experiences. For example the Holocaust was central to the creation of the Jewish state, but this was to a great extent an Ashkenazi experience. The Jews of Yemen or of Iran were little affected by it, yet they now are part of the state that came out of that tragedy. The rise of Likud in the late 1970s was directly related to the support of the Sephardi community, after the post-Independence hegemony of the Labour and the Ashkenazi community, and brought with it a different world-view.

Whilst these important questions of identity and political structure remain unresolved it is not clear what will happen next in the Middle East Peace Process. We were told that last year’s war was fought by Olmert with one eye on Lebanon and the other on the stock exchange - waiting for global markets to tell him when he had to stop because Israel could not handle a collapse in confidence in the economy. The Israelis have long said that they don’t have a partner to talk to with the Palestinians, but to me it isn’t completely apparent who the Israeli partner is either. Until there is a more stable governing-coalition that isn't forced into adopting lowest common denominator policies to pacify such disparate parties within it, the future is far from clear. The next prime minister is likely to be Netanyahu or Barak, both of whom are not likely to have radical new thinking from their first attempts at power in the 1990s. And beyond the peace process, no one really seemed to know what to do about Hezbollah, let alone Iran.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Career choices for a new century

According to the Economist's review of the Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne new book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes rather bizarrely:
1% of young Californians say they expect to become “snipers”.
I haven't done the maths but I know that the Californian population is about the same as the UK - 60 million - and it is relatively young. Penn argues that 1% of population is a enough to make a significant trend.

From our department of corrections: A kind commenter notes I was hopelessly out on California's population - it's actually about 37 million and a big bit. So about the population of Poland then? I should google that shouldn't I? Otherwise I'm going to get some Polish commenter telling me I'm miles out again...

Oh I'm so good! You definitely want me to be on your pub quiz team. According to Wikipedia, the Polish population is 38.5 million, although from recent trips to the UK I reckon half of them are now working in British shops, hotels and other parts of the service sector - and definitely all the attractive young Polish women now seem to be in the UK (which can only be a great thing for British single blokes). I'm afraid I have no idea how many attractive polish women want to be snipers though.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Autumn climbing

Some pictures follow from last weekend's climbing trip. The venue was Olhava, Finland's finest cliff, although it was rather soggy after a lot of rain the week before and felt grubby. Normally by late summer and lots of ascents, the cracks that the climbs follow are clean of dirt and pine needles, but not this year seemingly. I haven't been for a couple of years so it was great to be back visiting an old friend, even if on a personal level I was climbing with the grace and style of a house brick.

I tried out my previously unused camping tarp. A reasonable success, although the weather wasn't challenging. It really does feel like a halfway house between a tent and a bivvy bag.

(All photos are clickable for full page versions)

Mist over Olhava Lake. Taken from my sleeping bag early in the morning.

Tents are just SOooo last year darling. Tarps - that's what all the cool kids are doing these days. I'm just - like - totally "Thru-hiker" now.

Dave enjoys the exposure leading Kehrääjä (5, HVS 5a)

An unusually quiet camping area

Dave cruises Ukkosen Johdatin (6-, E1 5b), making it look very easy considering its about his fourth route of the year. Not that I'm jealous or anything...

The Tampere boys on Kantti (6-, E2 5b)

Deep breaths, don't panic, hard bit done...

Kantti from below.

Rather alarmingly, we saw a young Czech visitor fall about 35 mtrs down the cliff, utterly miraculously coming to a halt literally a metre above the ground. He was bashed and bruised but otherwise OK. He had been climbing on a top rope that his partners had supposedly attached via a munter/Italian friction hitch at the top of the cliff. Clearly it wasn't a munter hitch because when he fell he didn't stop until something happened to snag. This, I'm pretty certain, saved his life and - as we had only just arrived at the cliff - stopped our weekend coming to a rather abrupt and unpleasant early end.

Even if you are 'just' top roping, take care out there kids. He was very lucky - if you fuck up just once you may well die. Check, check, then check again.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Burma: the dignity and bravery of normal people

Like many I can only look on the people of Burma with a mixture of awe and feelings of inadequacy. It ain't much, but we can offer them our solidarity if nothing else.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's grim 'oop north

Life in France

Life in Finland

Same wine, same quantity, slightly different price.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Musical nationalism

I was half listening to the Finnish news in English this morning at 7.30 am on YLE - i.e. still half asleep - and thought that I had heard them say that newest single from top-Finnish-soft-rockers HIM, had gone straight into the British charts at no.1, knocking off another Finnish song, from crap-goth-opera-rockers Nightwish, from the top spot. I wasn't quite sure why this was headline news in comparison to, say, the ongoing who-the-hell-is-in-charge-of-Finnish-foreign-policy-? debate, but there you go - cultural exports and all that.

So I was surprised to see the headline in Helsingin Sanomat this afternoon:
HIM single fails to make it into British Top 40 on release
This seems even more unimportant news than actually getting to number 1 in the 'hit parade'. Hesari does note though at the bottom of the piece that:
On the more specified UK Top 40 Rock Singles Chart, on the other hand, HIM made it to #1. The band took over the top position from another Finnish group, Nightwish, whose Amaranth single now slips down to number two.
So actually the news on the radio this morning was that HIM had made it to the top of the UK "Rock" chart. I didn't even know that the UK had a rock chart!? I guess someone has to count what the losers in overly tight jeans, bullet belts and immensely bad hair fashion spend their money on, but really YLE - you are meant to be the national broadcaster. Please! Reporting on how 'your lads' are doing in the UK rock chart seems to be scraping the bottom of the petty nationalistic pride barrel.

It did make me wonder why the Finnish media is obsessed with how well the Finnish bands do (or don't do) in the UK charts as opposed to, say, the German top 40?

Could it be because the UK has given the world The Beatles; The Rolling Stones; The Sex Pistols; The Smiths; New Order; The Stone Roses; Teenage Fanclub (ok - I snuck that one in on a more personal note); Radiohead; Oasis; etc. Whilst Germany has given the world, ummmm.... The Scorpions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Minister clarifies remarks: what I really meant was I just don't like immigrants

Finnish Foreign Trade and Development Minister Paavo Väyrynen (Centre Party) was criticized over the weekend for commenting that it would be better to off-shore jobs from Finland than to have immigrants come to Finland to do those jobs. Plenty of people piped up to tell him he was living in the past and the Finnish economy couldn't work like that. So on Monday Väyrynen modified his position, he didn't really want to see Finnish jobs go abroad; rather, as Helsingin Sanomat puts it:
Väyrynen sought to clarify his comments, noting that he does not oppose labour-based immigration as such, but he does not favour widespread immigration.
Thanks Paavo, now us immigrants in Finland clearly understand exactly where you are coming from.

How to sue God

Foreign Policy Magazine has an odd little story on its website about a Nebraska legislator who is trying to sue God for, well, all those "acts of God" which he sees as terrorism. Read a bit more here, and below is some of the papers filed with the court.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bin Laden on race relations

I'm back from Israel after a totally exhausting but fascinating week, more on that later. A quick post for today: I just read Michael Scheuer's analysis of the bin Laden video that was released last week. Scheuer notes how bin Laden, like the other al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, attacked the US for being a racists country:
These two men [...] have focused on the imperfect state of black-white race relations in the United States and championed the Islamic ideas of Malcolm X, and bin Laden—possibly for the first time—hit on this theme in his September 7 statement. "It is severer than what the slaves used to suffer at your hands centuries ago," bin Laden said in regard to conditions for white and especially black U.S. soldiers in Iraq, "and it is as if some of them have gone from one slavery to another more severe and harmful, even if it be in the fancy dress of the Defense Department's financial enticements".
This reminded me of the take on American race relations of another old ideological enemy of the US. The picture below is an undated Soviet propaganda poster that I saw at the National Cold War Exhibition at RAF Cosford in the UK earlier this year.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Road to Zion

Jody (back in autumnal black-powerstretch-ninja-mode) does the second ascent of "Road to Zion" (VS 4c/5a).

I haven't done a climbing post for ages, so here's one. I climbed a new route yesterday at Haukkakallio. I had tried to climb it onsight last weekend, but it had been too dirty and the crack that the route follows too choked with mud, so I cleaned it on abseil but didn't have time to try leading it, hence I was dead keen to return to this weekend. The actual climbing went well, it was hard enough to be interesting but not so hard that I couldn't do it.

Anni through the quickdraws on "The Constant Gardener" (HS 4b).

For any non-climbers reading: once you have done a first ascent, you can name the climb - so I had to think of a name. I'm off to Israel in a few days, so I thought that something Biblical would be good - in future years it will help me remember when I did the climb. There are many, many climbs in the UK of a certain age - normally from the 1950s and earlier - that have biblical or classically inspired names. They point to both a higher level of church going, and of a more classical education of those times. I'm rather embarrassed that when I did routes like Agag's Groove in Glencoe, or Via Dolorosa at the Roaches, that I didn't even get the Biblical references in their names. If you are a mid-grade climber (most routes of that grade had been done by the 1960s) in Britain and you actually check on Wikipedia where the name of the climbs you have done, come from it will teach you many things that perhaps we should have learned in Sunday School or English literature lessons.

Jody storming the "Battlements" (VS 4c). English Tony looks on.

So I was trying to think of a good Israel-connected name; I like the word Zion, very classical - lots of poetic and literary resonance, but alone it seemed a bit to short. The phrase "Road to Zion" came to mind, although I couldn't remember why - maybe because it sounded like the movie "Road to Perdition" which I enjoyed. So when I got home I googled the phrase and the first thing that comes up is the Damian Marley song of the same name, which must be the reason the phrase was first in my head. As Damian's father, Bob, wrote the most famous song ever about climbing cracks (we're jammin', we're jammin', we hope you like jammin' too... of course its about climbing!) this was a good start, but when I saw that "Road to Zion" is from an album called called - wait for it - "Welcome to Jamrock" I had found the perfect name.

The song is 'politically conscious', as it is called in the genre, as well - attacking Mugabe. Zimbabwe has been on my mind recently. Mugabe might be evil, but I've never heard him called stupid - yet even with just an A-level in economics, I can tell he simply doesn't get supply and demand - hence an economy running at nearly 10,000% inflation. So dissing Mugabe just makes the song better. Check it out below.