Storm Damage

I find personal blogging quite difficult sometimes. It’s as if I want to create space between me and a prospective reader. Opinions are OK – they can belong to anyone, but personal comment opens a window to the outside world and it’s not surprising if people peer inside sometimes. They might see things.

The last three days have seen the worst snowstorm in Israel in living memory. Even in faraway Cairo, they had snow for the first time in 112 years. The first great, ominous flakes began falling Wednesday night and by Thursday, a pretty if slightly inconvenient blanket decorated the gardens  of Jerusalem and made locomotion difficult. By mid-afternoon Thursday and into Friday, it stopped being funny. A huge dump, in places, more than a metre deep had brought down powerlines and caused the worst arboreal damage since the Jordanian bombardment of 1948, also cut off large areas of population. Tramlines disappeared under a flat, white landscape and an eerie quiet, even more funereal than the usual Shabbat calm, descended. People moved like ghosts, disappearing into swirling mist. The ubiquitous cats were nowhere to be seen. A few Orthodox, satin coats flapping in the wind, starkly reminiscent of flaky black and white images of the Warsaw ghetto, plodded determinedly, their hats protected with plastic elasticated covers, their beards dusted white.
Of all the paradigm shifts this place affords, I found myself confronted with yet one more. Jews do deprivation better than most and can still call up what must surely be a collective memory and a survivalist mentality that is unrivalled elsewhere. It manifests as a Stoicism so crusted with collective disappointment that a few flakes of snow simply causes it to surface. Unlike the plucky grin-and-bear it Cockneys in the Blitz, these people are hard-wired for the possibility of disaster and it takes relatively little to cause it to emerge and the odd stone thrower masquerading as a benign snowballer raises nothing more than a ripple.
Miraculously, there have been relatively few fatalities, four  so far. When the road to Tel Aviv was closed since so many cars had been abandoned on it, a call went out for four-wheel drives to help stranded motorists. This was met with sufficient response so people were ferried out of danger. The mayor put out a call to those having power to host someone for Shabbat who had none – close to 20,000 were left in the cold and dark and some still are.

Closer to home, the school, also my home, is housed in the old English Mission hospital, whose foundation stone was laid in 1895. Most of the original buildings of solid Samarian limestone worn smooth by the passing of time are still functional. It is all the additional workmanship, cheap and jerry-built, which has suffered. A few days ago,  a colleague’s roof collapsed over lunch, sending metre squared tiles crashing, mingling with puddles formed by leakages. My own large fanlight fitment looked as if it were in tears as the water trickled ominously around it, pooling in ever-widening circles on the floor, ultimately shorting the main circuit breaker. My TV picture fragmented and was lost as snow accumulated on the satellite dish. A fibre-optic cable in the garden, stretched dangerously by a fallen branch, looked as if an enthusiastically obese tightrope walker forgot to step off it.
Reconstruction is part of the survivalists’ genetics here. We shall be up and functioning soon despite the heaviness of the air and the occasional stench of hatred. The patient has had major surgery, but she will not need to convalesce for long.

Other People’s Money

One of the American validators visiting us a few days ago asked an obviously scripted question to our staff. She said “Are you satisfied with your remuneration here?”  Silence. She waited. Then someone said “The Holy City has a premium.” I won’t say who it was.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about money. Not about having enough personally, but the whole mechanism of charitable giving, who gives, why do they give and, I suppose, how much.
My TV package has quite an eclectic mix of different channels, including the ‘700 Club’, Pat Robertson’s live show in which guest spots and prayer requests are interspersed with encouraging messages to the naive, the hopeful, the credulous and the desperate to become a member of the Club and hand over wads of cash.
I’m somewhat ashamed to have to admit to never having been tempted by such indulgences – the thought of giving to organisations where I can’t really see where the money goes must surely indicate a serious lack of trust on the one hand and a grudging, almost miserly lack of belief in the ‘windows of heaven’ promise on the other. 
After the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, money was raised and instead of pouring it into some hastily-arranged communal pot, it was decided that it would be more efficient to hire a lorry ourselves, fill it with locally sourced materials and deliver it personally to the disaster site rather than go through channels where the probability of it being quite simply stolen was alarmingly high.
Much as I’d so love to believe otherwise, people aren’t, on the whole, to be trusted with other people’s money. Entire states are run, and wars are fought with it. The Al Aqsa mosque has had scaffolding around it for years to give the impression that renovation work is being carried out. It isn’t. Nothing has been done for years in spite of faithful and quite large donations. The money has just disappeared. Similarly, what, I ask myself, has happened to all that US aid endlessly poured into Gaza? It isn’t being used to build schools and hospitals, that’s for sure. I wonder whose Swiss bank accounts are being quietly fattened, children educated privately in Europe and secluded properties acquired in out-of-the way places where the rich gather. 
John Kerry wants to give four billion American dollars to reinvigorate the West Bank, which as a charitable gesture is unparalleled in its generosity – I do hope the American people are in agreement – it is their money, after all, but I can’t help but wonder how many cents on the dollar will the alleged recipients really be able to use after all the bribes have been paid. 
The UN has funded Palestinian textbooks calling for jihad and destruction of the State of Israel. Who’s  checking, or is it simply that nobody actually cares how the money is spent?
A recent Newsnight broadcast showed a short film in which a BBC reporter accompanied a British “aid convoy”, funded, it would seem, by UK Muslim charities and headed to the most dangerous parts of Syria. The Aid for Syria convoy, comprised of half a dozen ambulances, travelled over three thousand miles through Europe and Turkey before finally crossing the border into Syria, purportedly to deliver food, shelter and medical supplies. Accusations that aid convoys are linked to terrorism were not addressed in the film,  although the sponsors had known links with terrorist organisations. One ambulance was stopped by counter-terrorism officers at Dover, under suspicion that its occupants were going to Syria to fight. It was also briefly noted, without explanation, that border police turned away one member of the convoy at the Greek-Turkish border. Perhaps all the medicines, blankets and warm fuzzies so kindly donated just somehow got switched for AK47’s and mortar rounds. 
This Syrian-bound fire engine from Bradford bears the name of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, convicted of bomb-making and other terrorism-related activities, who is now serving an 86 year jail sentence in Fort Worth, Texas. The Taliban have attempted to bargain for her release with hostage exchange.
I can’t help feeling that all that money raised is being used for quite different purposes than that for which the donors originally gave it. I might just keep mine in my pocket.

Minds Luminous

Jerusalem has a breezy insouciance about it. People seem, well, cleverer than average.  Conversations are vocabulary-rich, the complaining is erudite and sophisticated and people think and act fast. For its size, the school where I teach boasts a dazzling array of academic luminosity, beside which

my own modest achievements flicker shyly. 

The Nobel season is again upon us and it seems to become less surprising than ever to observe that a tiny nation comprising 0.2% of the world’s population has once more scooped a handful of the most prestigious academic accolades on the planet.  In chemistry, all three winners were Jewish, in medicine, two out of three. In physics, the prize went jointly to François Englert, and Peter Higgs. Englert is 80, a Holocaust survivor who holds a special professorial chair at the school of physics and astronomy at Tel Aviv University.

Is it a gene? Some think so, but I don’t really buy into the genetic dialogue – it would almost be as if God were cheating by giving the chosen people an unfair advantage. I have the rare honour of agreeing with one Nobel laureate, Robert Aumann, (economics, 2005) who suggested :

“Torah study is an intellectual pursuit, and honoring this ultimate value transfers to other pursuits as well….. Jewish homes have overflowing bookshelves.. Throughout the generations we have given great honor to this intellectual pursuit…Torah study makes the nation and its people of the finest and highest quality.”

So, that’s it. Reading and studying Scripture. Could it possibly be that simple, and yet so demanding? I get to meet a number of people here whose worldview is circumscribed by a quite linear interpretation of the Scriptures, as if it were somehow sacrilegious or worse, in bad taste, to argue about their meaning. No such scruples for the Jews. They set about dismembering flawed logic and fuzzy reasoning with all the vigour of  scores of generations who argued with God. It might be that it is this that gives them the edge intellectually. It is said that where you have one Jew, you have an opinion. Where there are two, an argument. Three, you have a synagogue. Contending with the Creator of the Universe, it seems,  has the great merit of sharpening the mind.