Wednesday 15 August 2012

1948 and All That*, A Whimsical History

Sadly, there’s quite a deplorable ignorance about the history of Israel among the young population. (Who’s young? you may ask. Well that’s all relative. Anyone who can’t remember what a record player is is young.) Or at least, so complained a friend of mine who teaches Civics here in Israel. Of course one assumes he was bemoaning their ignorance before he taught them, not after.

So for your, and their benefit I thought I’d give a quick rundown of Zionism, and the History of the Modern State of Israel, abridged.
Of course there’s a great deal of argument over Israel, Palestine, the history of Zionism. And the facts are often very confusing (possibly because a lot of them are on the ground, apparently, where they can be trampled upon). So I’ve redrawn the history with heaps of poetic licence, based not so much on facts but more on suggestive anecdotes and the general gist.

So if you're sitting comfortably, I shall begin.

Herzl, when he first started his modeling career,
here seen  sporting the popular frock coat.
Once upon a time, back in an earlier century, there lived an emancipated European Jewish man with a long dark beard called Herzl, who was always leaning on balconies and dreaming. One day, whilst leaning on a particularly classic balcony in a town in Switzerland, it suddenly occured to him that if he really wanted something it needn’t be a dream. So he formed an organization called WIZO, and gathering together all the influential and funny sounding friends he could find, he set about establishing a home for the People of the Book. But first he needed a Book. So he wrote an almost-bestseller, called Alt Neuland, which was Prussian for the Austrian for the German for what we in English called Neverneverland, which was an allegory of displaced people and their quest for a place where they could put their hat. And so call it a home.

At the time, there was an old empire, left over from the empirical period, called the Ottoman Empire on account of all the furniture in it, and the pashas. A small part of that empire, just below a larger part, and to the right of the important part, was a land called Frankenstien (formally Uganda) where the Philistine people lived. Herzl, together with his WIZO friends, having raised an enormous sum of money at a charity ball, put a deposit on a sand dune in Palestine, and invited others (not themselves, obviously) to move in and start building condominiums. The Turks (for it was they, under the guise of the pashas and Ottomans) were incensed and in retaliation, decided to join the wrong side of World War One. When World War One (also known as The War That Was To End All Wars Until The Next One) ended, the French and the British, who were on the Right Side of the war, sliced up the Middle East with no more than a ruler, a compass, and a hand that felled a city. The French got all the bits that spoke French, or pretended to, while the British got whatever was left over, or whoever agreed to drive on the left, and that included Palestine, which became a Mandate (which is a bit like a blind date, but involves no multitasking).

So now the British ran the place. They spent most of their time painting all the letter boxes red, renaming all the roads King George Street, drinking tea, and attempting to stop the influx of Zionists (which is Hebrew for the English term ‘bloody Zionists’), who were mostly Europeans from Europe who were escaping Europe by boat as World War Two (the one after the first one) was just about to finish. One of the most famous boats at the time was the SS Exodus (named after one of the books of the bible, though no one is sure which) and which was captained by Paul Newman. At this point, some of the local Arabs (who were either Philistines themselves, or possibly Turks) also took offense, though the British assured them that whatever Florence of Arabia (an Irishman of the British Legion who rose to high rank despite wearing dresses) had promised them would be honoured, if they could just sign here and here. And initials here, thank you.

But riots broke out, and the British who tried to keep the peace by offering even more tea, were finally compelled to blame it on everybody else, and left in a huff. (Huffs were very large boats at the time). And in 1948ish or thereabouts, while the local Jewish population were busy singing and dancing in the streets (as there was no television in those days, and no heating either), a new state was declared: the State of Israel. A wise old man called Ben Gurion (formerly known as Lod) who had tufts of white hair here and here, was elected the first prime minister and his assistant was an elderly young statesman called Shimon Peres, who, no matter how often he lost elections, persevered at politics for a whole life time (some say even longer) until he left politics altogether and became President of the State.

To begin with, the young state was not only young and inexperienced, but it was also out of place, out of odds, and out of tea too. (The British had taken the last shipment when they left, together with the last carton of milk. In a bitter irony, Israelis decided that from then on they would drink tea, but not the English sort, and they wouldn’t add milk). Meanwhile, all the neighbouring states launched an attack, and fighting carried on till finally someone said stop, very possibly Ben Gurion, who would often hold cabinet meetings while standing on his head on the beach.

That was the rocky start of the State of Israel, and if I can remember any more of the factless history, I’ll tell you the rest another time.
So now we're all the wiser.
Have a wonderful day.

*With many thanks to W.C.Sellar and R.J. Yeatman.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Cause and effect: Karma and calmer

"My Aunt Dolly once put sugar in her tea, and over the next 40 years she lost all her teeth," quipped the great, late satirist and comic writer Peter Cook. Which is a wonderful lesson to us all: Cut down on sugar.
So you think today's blog is going to be all about calories?
Well I'm never that obvious, am I? So think again.
In his witty repartee, Cook had hit the nail on the head. It's all a question of Cause and Effect (oh, now I hear all the statisticians and econometrists among you jump up with excitement), which is a Karma philosophy. (Now I hear all you Buddhists jump up with excitement. Well maybe not jump. Roll over, possibly).
What it boils down to is: What causes what? If two things occur together, are they necessarily correlated? Maybe there's a third, unknown, factor which is behind it all.
Which came first indeed? The chicken or the egg, or the farmer?
In the 19th century, the great economist Ricardo faced a similar conundrum: Is the rent that farmers pay on their fields high because the price of corn is high? Or is the price of corn high because farmers are paying high rents?

Now why don't you sit back and let me tell you an old, old story.
Once upon a time, back in the 1880s, the French decided (like many before them) that it would be far quicker, easier, and therefore cheaper, if instead of sailing all round the bottom of Cape Horn to get from one part of the globe to another, one could cut right through the middle of the American continent. So they looked at the atlas, found the narrowest part of the continent, which was in… yes, well done, my blog fans… Panama, and decided to build the Panama canal. The French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, invested money, equipment, builders, engineers and designers into the massive venture.
The project failed.
Not just failed, but tragically failed. Over 22,000 workers died in the attempt. The venture was abandoned, and it took many years until the project was taken up again, this time by the Americans (trust them to turn up late, pump in the money, and take the credit), who succeeded, and the canal opened in 1914.
So, my quiz for the day: What was the missing link? Why did so many workers die in the first attempt at forging a canal through Panama?

The answer: Mosquitoes.
In the 1880s, no one knew that mosquitoes were the transmitters of malaria and yellow fever. No one fully understood the importance of sanitation and clean drinking water. And the site of the digging in Panama was surrounded by swamps, where the mosquitoes happily lived and bred, and spread disease.
So only after this link was discovered and suitable precautions and sanitation was introduced, could the Panama canal venture triumph. The swamps were dried, mosquito nets were placed over beds, in came window screens and fumigation, and so the engineering works could plunge ahead, and the journey from one side of the globe to the other became shorter, quicker, safer and cheaper. You could say the entire world trade benefitted from an engineering feat that relied on a medical discovery.
That's Cause and Effect.

And here's another one closer to my home, and which may sound just as odd.
I would like to suggest that partly one of the reasons that property prices are so high in Israel, is because we take large curves in order to turn left at intersections.
Obvious isn't it?

You are driving straight, and you come to an intersection. When do you start turning the wheel? In England, one is taught to slow down, and only when you have come absolutely in line with the turning you want to turn into – so you're practically looking down the destination street – then you turn the wheel, sharply, by 90 degrees, make your turn, and off you go.
It means you may very well be sitting plum in the centre of a major intersection, but, hey, what's life without some scary moments?

In Israel, though, the Powers That Be - that bunch of incompetent penpushers in the Ministry of Transport, Traffic Jams, and General Misery – have decided that, like children, the Israeli driver cannot possibly be expected to exercise such judgment, and good driving skills. So the Ministry insists that any junction must provide enough turning curve, for those turning left, that wouldn't tax a 12-year old with only one hand on the steering wheel.
So instead of minimal sized intersections, like this:

We end up with much larger intersections, like this:
US Department of Transportation

Note the painted white lines to indicate the sweeping turning curve. This curve allows the driver to drive faster, think less (two reasons that make this more dangerous) and it also results in a far larger intersection. The halt line for each approaching road has to be further from the center in order to allow for this curve.
End result: larger intersections, wasted space. Take a closer look when you're passing a junction. Try and find the smallest junction and see why it can be so small. Maybe no left turns are allowed.

And if the junctions took up less space, we'd have more space for more buildings. Supply of housing could rise, and maybe…just maybe… the extortionate price of housing in Israel would drop.

Causal links are not always obvious. But I think if we encouraged drivers to slow down and turn more sharply, and carefully, on a smaller space, then maybe flats in downtown Tel Aviv would become more affordable.

And try cutting down on sugar, too.