Category Archives: Point of View

A Multi-Layered American Part III — French Connection

It is now time to switch to the French connection. While I was born into the Jewish and Russian parts of my identity, the French part only occurred due to my family’s 12-year residence in Beirut during my childhood, which I wrote about previously. It was there that I got a French education in an academically oriented French Lycee.

I not only learned to speak and write French but also absorbed the French world view which is rational, secular and totally oriented to critical thinking. I was very influenced by the 18th century great philosophers, and the Enlightenment remains my favorite period of history. Some other Frenchmen I have loved: Moliere for his beautifully written and shrewdly observed comedies, Voltaire for defying the Established Church, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, in spite of their being classics which had to be admired.

Later I loved Sartre and Camus for their ideas, and finally I must mention Henry Troyat, a very prolific novelist who like my family left Russia as a boy and wrote about both Russian and French life and their interconnections. I read him for pleasure.

The French connection got a big boost when I married a Frenchman in 1943. David Klugman had the same Russian Jewish background as myself and we were introduced by mutual friends in Tel Aviv. David had lived in Grenoble with his widowed mother from age 13. In 1940 when France was under German occupation, he and a companion secretly crossed the Pyrenees and escaped across the border to Spain and from there to Portugal. There he joined De Gaulle’s Free French Forces and fought in North Africa’s Western Desert along Montgomery’s British troops. We met during one of his leaves, started corresponding, and eventually married.

At the end of the war David was demobilized in France and I joined him there. We lived in France for 3 years during which my daughter Dina was born. Throughout our whole marriage French was spoken at home. As a result both our daughters Dina and Helen (born in Oakland) are totally fluent in French.

 

 

And so one might say that Jewishness has been a constant but unobtrusive presence in my life, Russia has fulfilled my emotional needs, and France lodged itself in my brain’s frontal cortex which deals with problem solving and intellectual life. I think they all live together in harmony.

Next time I will tell about our move to the United States and how we fared in yet another new country.



RUSSIA’S AUTOCRATS (part 1 of 4)

Catherine II of Russia

Catherine The Great

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Editor’s note: We’re proud to present Simone’s history and comments about autocracy in Russian history.
This will come in four parts over the coming month. Simone will build the story for us in her
unique fashion. Here, it begins.

The Absolutist Czars

Russia’s natural equilibrium rests on a solid autocratic base, embedded in the title of the Czar: Absolute Emperor of all the Russias. Throughout its history whenever schisms seemed to undermine this base, Russia employed a self-correcting mechanism to return to the status quo ante. Regimes and names change, but the pendulum always swings back to autocracy. No Czar or any other ruler ever shared power. It was his alone. The Czar was affectionately known as “batiushka” (little father). His “children” understood that he had to be severe.

Here is a condensed history:

Ivan the Terrible 1530-1584

Prince of Moscow, he conquered surrounding provinces and was the first czar and autocrat. His name became synonymous with torture and cruelty .He changed Russia from a medieval state to an emerging regional power and he set out to destroy any who dared oppose him. The massacre of Novgorod, which lasted five weeks and killed uncounted thousands, is regarded as a demonstration of his mental instability and brutality. He was Terrible. Other Czars were “Great.”

Peter the Great 1672-1725

He inherited a backward state and instituted gigantic reforms. Singlehandedly he propelled Russia to the rank of a major power. He is known as a Westernizer. St. Petersburg began as an island at the mouth of the Neva River and was a “blank sheet” on which he could build a new city from scratch and construct a microcosm of the New Russia. Because he was an autocrat he could use slave labor, work people to death, and not worry about the peasants’ welfare. But he did create a “window on the West.”

Catherine the Great 1729-1796

Born a German Princess, she transformed Russia into a powerful, modern wealthy country. During her reign Crimea and part of Poland were acquired. Her empire extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Catherine was a patron of the arts and founded many institutions of learning such as the Hermitage Museum of Art. Both Peter and Catherine were absolute monarchs.

Alexander the Third 1881-1894

He witnessed the murder of his father Alexander II, killed in St. Petersburg by an anarchist. He promoted the Trans-Siberian Railroad which made the port of Vladivostok more accessible, thus integrating East and West.

Nicolas II 1868-1918 (the last Czar)

During his reign Russia suffered a major defeat following the Russo-Japanese War. He authorized the violent repression of “Bloody Sunday,” a peaceful march of protest during which men, women and children were shot and killed indiscriminately.
He also suppressed the 1905 Revolution. In addition his reign was marred by the interference of the “mad monk” Rasputin in court decisions. Finally there was the rout of the Russian army during World War I. It was the last blow. Nicolas was forced to resign. His cousin George V of Britain, who looks remarkably like him, was unable or unwilling to offer him sanctuary. Finally, after several years of exile, he and his whole family were cold-bloodedly shot. They died never understanding why they had to die.

Next time:Part 2: The Czar is dead. Is autocracy dead?



The Adventures of Bibi in Africa

Bibi Netanyahu

Bibi Netanyahu

Flag of Uganda

Flag of Uganda

Flag of Kenya

 

Flag of Rwanda

Flag of Rwanda

Flag of Ethiopia

Flag of Ethiopia

Benjamin Netanyahu (known as Bibi to his friends) recently completed a four-nation visit to Sub-Saharan Africa, the first such visit by an Israeli Prime Minister in 29 years. The trip included Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Netanyahu was accompanied by a delegation of some 70 business executives.

Israel was already active in Africa, sharing its know-how in irrigation, technology, clean water, crop production, solar panels, lighting and refrigeration. Nowadays its expertise in security is also in demand as terrorism is rising everywhere.

For most of its history, Israel has been a Western country living in an Eastern environment. This balancing act is now in peril. Relations with Europe have been steadily unraveling since the 1967 war. And anti-Israeli and anti- semitic rhetoric keeps growing. In the Middle East Israel is surrounded by countries overtly dedicated to its eradication. In America too, support is eroding. Everywhere guilt about the Holocaust is fading and the slogan Zionism = Racism has become pervasive. Israel is now the new South Africa, and more and more European countries are boycotting Israeli products. In Africa too relations were terminated and ties cut after the Arab oil embargo which followed the 1973 Middle East wars.

Current global danger is making African countries reassess their position. Africa has 54 countries, Many of them are exposed to Jihadist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab which uses child soldiers to conduct attacks in Kenya, Somalia and other East African countries.

Netanyahu was well greeted in all four countries he visited. When he arrived at Uganda’s Entebbe airport Netanyahu recalled Israel’s raid to end the hostage crisis of 40 years earlier. The Entebbe rescue of hostages who had been captured by Palestinian terrorists on a flight from Tel Aviv was a daring operation. It was one of Israel’s greatest successes . The only victim was Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan, head of the commando team. This, said Netanyahu, changed the course of his whole life.

In Kenya Israel showed interest in increasing bilateral economic cooperation, boosting exports and technology sharing. The President, Uhuru Kenyatta, will also back Israel’s bid to regain observer status in the African Union.

Rwanda, in addition to needing help in farming, is also exploring tourism opportunities and military cooperation. In Rwanda, Netanyahu visited the Genocide Memorial commemorating the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Later, he was welcomed to the National Palace of Ethiopia by Prime Minister Haitemarian Desalegn. In the Palace Garden he was also greeted by a life size stuffed Lion. In his speech Netanyahu alluded to King Solomon’s visit to the Queen of Sheba many thousand years ago He promised to reinstate the law-of-return program. This concerns Ethiopian Jews who, if they are able to prove Jewish identity, are accepted as Israeli citizens. This program was halted in 2013 and resulted in separated families.

In all four countries visited, the problem of how to stem illegal immigration was raised. All in all this could be called a successful endeavor by Israel to establish a foothold on the African continent.



Burkini, France, God, Man, Power

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Editors note: Just wanted to encourage you to open this posting. I think it’s one of Simone’s Best!

This summer the burkini (a bathing costume which covers all of a woman’s body except for the face) made a brief appearance on French beaches and an almost instant disappearance. The mayor of Cannes, quickly followed by mayors in other resort cities, simply banned it. He cited a city ordinance prohibiting swimming in street clothes.

This, of course, is about much more than safety measures. The French Prime Minister has called full body swim suits archaic, anachronistic and a symbol of the enslavement of women. The French aversion to any ostentatious religious fervor goes back to a law of 1905, itself based on principles first enunciated in the French Revolution, which established the separation of Church and State. The law forbids any display of religious symbols in public places. The French call this “laicity.”

So this is about what it means to be French.The French are a secular nation. Religion is to be confined to to the place of worship and is not to encroach on civic life. For instance, head coverings are not allowed outside the house. Unlike the United States which calls itself “One Nation under God” and where Presidents routinely call on God to bless America, the French are literal about separating the two realms. (The reaction against the burkini was, of course, exacerbated by the July 14 events in Nice when a religious fanatic simply mowed down families with children who were celebrating the holiday.)

In the 1970s nude Swedish women began to appear on the beaches of The Gambia in Africa. The local population was shocked and nudity was banned. The French are just as averse to full clothing when swimming. In both cases, local sensibilities must be taken into account.

The Koran, I am told, makes no mention of hijabs, niqabs or burkas. It simply enjoins women to dress modestly. When I lived in Lebanon which has a sizable Muslim population, women wore Western clothing and were not always veiled. It is only recently that Muslim men invoke the Sharia to force women to cover themselves completely.

In Iran before the revolution, women also wore western clothes. Now the mullahs have decreed that women who do not wear the hijab on the street must be arrested. I even notice that in current Iranian films women and even little girls are shown wearing shawls and head covering inside their own homes. Iranian men are not allowed to see womens’ hair, even in films.

It is supposedly the need to protect women against men’s lust that motivates this dress code but what about the 72 virgins promised to martyrs in Paradise? Who is protecting them against lust? Or are the laws different in Paradise? So it is only natural that the French people feel that this controlling behavior represents a threat to hard-won women’s equality rights and a regression to more primitive times when religions ruled the world.



Loss and Longing

goethe

Editors note. We are starting today with a note that came from Simone after she had submitted this new post. Something about how she is thinking….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

LOSS AND LONGING

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.



The Tale of Two Tyrants

Erdogan

Erdogan

blackheart

Putin

Putin

Birds of a feather, Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, at some time flocked together. Both rule over authoritarian regimes with a one-party system. Both dominate their respective countries’ politics. Both are opportunists, and responsible for rampant human rights violations. Putin leans heavily on the Russian Orthodox Church and Erdogan is becoming increasingly more Islamist. Both have strong anti-western tendencies. In addition, both their countries have “great power” dreams. Turkey yearns for the days of the Ottoman Empire and Russia cannot forget the glories of the Soviet Union.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Ankara developed good trade relations. Russia was Turkey’s energy provider, and Russian tourists visited Turkey in great masses. Putin’s supporters see him as a challenge to the U.S. hegemony and influence in the world. Erdogan is perceived as a strong Muslim Sunni leader and the only one who can put an end to Iran’s Shia ambitions in the Middle East.

This mutually advantageous alliance held for a while. Then came an abrupt halt when, in November 2015 a Turkish combat aircraft shot down a Russian Su-24 close to the Turkish Syrian border. After the shooting Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would seriously reevaluate its relationship with Turkey and matters deteriorated rapidly. Erdogan’s trip to Russia was cancelled. Ankara claimed that Russia had repeatedly violated its airspace. At the height of the crisis Putin said: “Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by depriving them of reason and common sense. They will regret again and again what they have done.”
Trade relations broke down and Russian guided tours to Turkey were cancelled. Russia banned import of Turkish fruit, vegetables and poultry. Each side accused the other of backing terrorism.

The two leaders were snarling at each other and behaved like two angry football fans arguing about whose team was better. Erdogan blinked. In June he apologized for the downing of the Russian warplane and offered compensation to the dead pilot’s family.

Why the sudden reversal? This spat was not advantageous to either side. Turkey was losing the struggle against Russia which is gaining more ground in Syria. Turkey felt increasingly isolated and needed to build bridges; its economy is weakening. Turkey is also suffering from the flow of migrants into its territory and from increasing terrorist attacks.

The Turks realize they need to get over their obsession with the Kurdish minority and their brooding over the reluctance of the European Union to accept Turkey into the European family. Russia, meanwhile, is hoping to use Turkey again as its conduit for gas into Europe.

Interestingly at the same time, Russia and Turkey are now repairing their relations with Israel and Egypt because they both feel vulnerable and both have ambitions in the Middle East. The increase of Jihadist attacks also requires more cooperation by everyone concerned.



Strength in Symmetry (part 1)

mandala1mandala2mandala3Does Nature love symmetry? Apparently so.

Animals maximize their survival chances because any departure from symmetry affects locomotion. If one leg is shorter than the other you limp and become prey to predators. Birds could not fly nor fish swim if they were not evenly balanced. Their equilibrium would be affected.

And symmetry breeds success…I understand that perfect symmetry helps horses win races.

So most animals are bilaterally symmetrical and their bodies are divided equally into left and right sides. There are always exceptions. (sponges have an asymmetrical body plan).

As I look out at the trees from my window, I notice that they too have approximate symmetry even though they are not going anywhere. Pines are perfectly balanced but in most trees the two sides do not match exactly, branches may protrude. But I imagine that they too are shaped so that they do not topple over.

Of course fruit and flowers have perfect radial symmetry as we can see if we cut an apple or an orange in half. Bees are said to have imperfect vision but they are drawn to flowers because of their symmetry. So this seems like an evolutionary advantage. And the fruit is probably prevented from falling prematurely because its weight is even.

Our bodies are also approximately symmetrical. We too have two legs, hands, ears etc. But then why do we have only one heart, liver and pancreas? Why do we favor one hand over the other? (and why is it usually the right hand?)

In arguments we like to assign sides by saying: on the one hand, on the other hand, yes or no, true or false, something or nothing. So if we were a millipede would we see one thousand alternatives to every question?

(next time, more symmetrical thinking)



Je Suis Tired of Posturing

charlierwbcharliegirlsjesuisrip

After the killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, a spontaneous expression of popular solidarity erupted in Paris and other cities. The new slogan “Je suis Charlie” was born, perhaps echoing President’s Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” during the Berlin blockade. There was defiance in these expressions. What they were saying was: You cannot stop us. We will continue to target intolerance, evil and stupidity wherever we see it.

What started as a genuine outburst of indignation soon degenerated into a mandatory automatic response. Even John Kerry followed suit. No doubt he was moved and moving when he proclaimed: Je suis un Bruxellois after the massive killings there. He reminded us that after 9/11, a French reporter said “tonight we are all Americans.” Unfortunately this has now become a knee jerk reaction. “Je suis” sayings proliferate like mushrooms after rain. It is also, alas a very selective reaction. Paris and Brussels got their fair share but unless my memory fails me, I recall no such condemnation of the Madrid attack. And no one said: Je suis Tunis or Je suis Ankara. Nor was the Eiffel Tower illuminated for them.

Another sentiment often expressed by European leaders after terrorist acts goes something like this: We will not be afraid. We will live like we did before all this. We will continue to sit at cafe terraces, go to the theater and lead a carefree life. But what is really happening everywhere is:greatly increased security and surveillance, a rise of Right Wing anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment and the spread of fear mongering. Civil rights are being attacked and privacy is in jeopardy. We need only look at the Apple encryption brouhaha after the San Bernardino killings to see this. This is not unusual. It happens every time a people is “at war” and feels vulnerable. It sees spies everywhere. Perhaps some of this is justified but it creates a tense and unhealthy atmosphere. In the meantime the refugee tsunami continues to swell and exacerbates an already shaky equilibrium.



ISIS and Soup

bowlofsoup

Our problem in tackling ISIS is that it is not just a piece of land inhabited by enemies of the Western World but an ideology willing to die for its belief that the West must be annihilated.

Recently Avigdor Lieberman, (former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs) called for a full scale rooting out of ISIS…by NATO. Well, Turkey might not be so keen to help.

And as our military experts remind us, taking territory is so much easier than holding it. As Americans well know, it is very hard to know when it is “mission accomplished.” Is it ever? Lieberman’s Trumpian proposal has very real problems.

But how do we deal with a large scale ideological conflict? Didn’t we do that already when we defeated the Communist World? True it took a very long time to achieve and exacted a high price. In addition, although Communism started as an ideal it was quickly transformed into a “pretend” ideology. Its leaders stopped believing in it and used it principally to consolidate their power.

But Communism, though it stirred many people, did not generate the fervor that ISIS has achieved. Did anyone hear of any young communists blowing themselves up shouting “Marx is Great?”

ISIS, in contrast, is attracting and brainwashing young, ignorant, disaffected recruits with promises of a better life in Paradise where they will be greeted and wooed by 72 beautiful virgins. (Young women who become martyrs are not offered an equivalent benefit.)

It seems that we are dealing with a mutation to a new species of humanoids devoid of many of the traits of empathy, generosity and tolerance that mankind has slowly developed.

And so it is difficult not to be pessimistic about our ability to deal with this scourge. What can we offer in response? The imperfections of democratic rule? The greed of capitalism? Nobody has yet invented an anti-jihadist vaccine, and some of these addicts are too far gone for us to reach.

We can only start at the bottom with the very young. See to it that we give them the proper environment to thrive, a good basic education, role models to emulate, opportunities for jobs and social integration. We must make sure that they do not inhabit a parallel world, and live in enclaves where they nurse grievances that evolve into hatred.

We also need to keep stirring the melting pot of the world. It makes a pretty good soup.

Editor’s Note: Simone thrives on your comments. We encourage you to contribute your thoughts.



Bring them Back? Safe Return?

bringbackgirlssignabductedgirls

Two years ago in April the extremist group Boko Haram stormed a girls’ secondary school in the town of Chibok, Nigeria and seized 276 girls. At the time, this massive kidnapping created an enormous worldwide reaction. People “prayed” and “demanded ” that the girls be returned home. At the White House, Michelle Obama tweeted: “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It is time to #Bring Back Our Girls.” Through social media, millions closely watched all developments.

Whom are they addressing these demands and prayers to? A remorseful Boko Haram suddenly contrite? An efficient and competent Nigerian Government? Or an attentively listening God eager to grant wishes?

Now two years later crowds are marching in the streets of Abuja again chanting and “demanding” the return of the girls. Do they think that the girls who most probably were promptly dispersed into neighboring countries will magically reappear looking just as they did when they were violently snatched by vicious intruders? Boko Haram has killed and kidnapped thousands in a campaign of violence as it (like ISIS ) seeks to establish a caliphate in Africa’s most populous nation. It coerces men to become fighters and girls to be slaves or even suicide bombers.
I recently saw a television interview with a Nigerian girl who had been abducted on another occasion (these raids are a regular occurrence) and who had somehow managed to escape. She had been 13 when she was snatched and was now 17 . She told of girls forcibly married or used as slaves by many of the warriors.

The girl had returned, but with a baby. Instead of being comforted and embraced by her family, she was brutally rejected. Her family wanted to kill the baby. He died later without their help. The girl had “dishonored” the family. She was now a pariah. Throughout the interview the girl played nervously with her shawl. She looked beautiful but her eyes had no expression. She told the interviewer she wanted to return and join Boko Haram and become a suicide bomber. As long as such pernicious attitudes continue to exist in the population, and when a perverted code of honor is invoked, there will never be a safe return for these very unlucky girls.