Tag Archives: Palestine

The best words in the English language?


The best words in the English language?

If you’re thinking about beauty of sound, I’ve heard people praise some multi-syllable words with sibilant sounds like “luminescence” or “crepuscular”.

When I was young I loved “criteria”, because it was a plural which did not end in the usual “s” and it defined an idea which was rather subtle and nuanced.

In relation to meaning rather than beauty, when the genius in John McGlashan’s cartoon of the same name around 1980 was striving to create a new language based on numbers rather than an alphabet, he said that the word which should correspond to number one should be… “money”.

What about “compromise”? A strong case can certainly be made for the importance of its meaning.

When artists use the word, they are usually being pejorative. You are diluting or modifying your creative vision or ideals, frequently for expected commercial benefits.

In politics and government, too, it has often in the past been identified as a weakness. The Irish diplomat Terence states “compromise” in international affairs is “fatal” in the wartime film The Halfway House – although the mysterious innkeeper Rhys counters gently “(but) the English have a genius for it”.

An Irish-American in another film, the retiring mayor Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah, describes the act of compromise as “man’s greatest friend”,  although he is criticised as much as praised for his own practice of it.

In real life, at the time of one successful peace negotiation, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, Bono of the band U2 coined his own (or perhaps copied someone else’s) effective phrase that “compromise is the best word in the English language”.

About another political issue which has certainly not been settled, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the writer and academic Amos Oz emphasised  that it could only be settled by “compromise”, because it is “a clash between right and right”, both Israelis and Palestinians having an equally strong desire, and an equal right, to have exactly the same land for their respective homelands.


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A well-remembered film about a forgotten campaign


The World War One commemoration reached its apex last year , but perhaps there is time for a few thoughts about a film about one of the neglected campaigns of the war. Whose main character, was, ironically, one of the most well-known military individuals from that war. The campaign was the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and the character was former archaeologist T.E.Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, has always been a popular and celebrated film. Winner of seven Oscars when first released in 1962, and one of the most financially successful of its year.  Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, each popular and acclaimed directors over many years, have publicly spoken about how much they admire the film and its director, and it still enjoys a high status among ordinary fans, on the IMDB list of best movies ever.

I must confess that when got my first belated look at the film on television about ten years ago, I was unmoved. It ran too long, there were too many men in uniform and no women, there was too much focus on scenery and its narrative about that part of World War One was not for me clearly told. I was already tending towards a view that the best films of Lean’s career were the shorter earlier ones, and Lawrence of Arabia seemed to provide further evidence.

I certainly gained more from my recent second viewing, both due to having since visited Palestine and reading about Lawrence in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2011 book Jerusalem. The narrative became clearer, and, also, I was struck by the film’s use of biblical motifs and in the way it deals with Lawrence’s sexuality.

In a video for the American Film Institute, Martin Scorsese marvelled that Lawrence of Arabia is a heroic cinematic epic which is centred not on a saint or a figure from the Bible but on a “difficult” character who shows and feels “self-destruction and self-loathing”. Yet it was made during the last great era of Hollywood big-budget bible epics like The Ten Commandments and King of Kings, and Lean deployed many of the tropes of cinematography from that genre. Lawrence strides and flounces around in flowing white robes, always markedly different to those around him but especially noticeable when he visits the British HQ in Cairo. He strides on top of railway carriages, outlined against the sun, to the loud cheers of his Arab followers and Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning music. Arabs riding on camels, especially the famous arrival of Omar Sharif’s character Sherif Ali out of the shimmering horizon, recall the arrival of the Magi. Everywhere there are large crowds of people. The scene of Lawrence’s capture by the Turkish forces in Deraa and his being stripped, prodded and beaten directly evokes Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate and his subsequent scourging.


Jerusalem. Lawrence described it as “a squalid town” of “characterless” people.


The real Lawrence’s sexuality was “mysterious”, says Sebag Montefiore. He “was not a misogynist” but certainly fairly indifferent towards women. His friend Ronald Storrs, on whom the character of the diplomat Dryden in the film is probably based, is quoted as saying, dryly, “He’d have kept his composure if he’d suddenly been informed he’d never see a woman again.”

Lawrence of Arabia was made when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK and Lean used some familiar cinematic devices to suggest homoeroticism. The camera focusses continually on Peter O’Toole’s strong body shape, bleached hair and blue eyes. Lawrence is shown to be very emotionally attached to two young men who become his servants.

“Vanity competed with masochism” in Lawrence, says Sebag Montefiore. His first appearance in the film shows him placing his finger in a match flame, saying to his fascinated observers, “The trick…is not minding that it hurts”. The viewer is reminded of this later when we see Lawrence apparently unintimidated by the beating from his Turkish captors. “The slaughter and grit of war both horrified and excited him”, says Sebag Montefiore, and Lean includes scenes which show him revolted by killing and attracted to it.

The scene with the match flame which introduces the viewer, variously, to Lawrence’s interest in the Middle East, his eccentricity and his fondness for attention as well as his tolerance of pain is the only one which makes reference to the British fighting another horrible war elsewhere in the world.

“This is a nasty dark little room,” says Lawrence, to which his junior colleague replies, “It’s better than a nasty dark little trench”.


Reference :  Sebag Montefiore, Simon (2012)   Jerusalem    London: Phoenix


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No peace in the Holy Land – or even in talking about it


Six years ago, Leaf Collecting began with a post about Bethlehem. After a lifetime’s interest in the town, informed first by Christianity and later by politics, I had finally been able to visit.

Bethlehem is situated in the West Bank, the area of Israel which since 1994 has been administered by a Palestinian executive but under the strict control of the Israeli government. Every year, as we move towards Christmas, the normally secular media remembers this part of the Middle East as the Holy Land, the homeland of Jesus Christ. Life here gets a little more news coverage.


Part of the separation wall through the West Bank.



Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Beit Sahour in the West Bank.


Palestine did get some news attention earlier this year, with the protests associated with the anniversary of the Naqba, the expulsion of Palestinians which took place at the time of the founding of Israel in 1948. The media always loves an anniversary.

A separate but connected news story during the summer was about alleged anti-semitism within the UK Labour party. The issue provided endless opportunity for individuals to be rude to each other, which the TV news channels were happy to co-operate with – but nobody seemed to want to explain to the viewers why members of the Labour party might be so interested in the actions of the foreign government of Israel.

I wonder if this might be connected to the education of the generation currently working in the media and party politics and think tanks. For a long time now, Nazism and the Second World War has been a common topic in History classes in Scottish schools. I imagine a similar case applies in England. A History teacher once wryly said to me about that you could study History from S3 to Advanced Higher (ages 13-16), and then through university, learning little more than that single topic. The Holocaust Educational Trust has for many years provided educational materials to schools; they and conventional travel firms organise trips to the former Nazi concentration camps. Cinema films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are still made; documentaries about the 1930s and 1940s are regularly screened on TV.

So a lot of people know something about the Holocaust, and probably more than when I was in school. Possibly they know less about the founding of the state of Israel, including the British involvement, and the history of that country during the past 70 years. In recent times there have been wars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and younger journalists and politicians may feel the electorate (and maybe they themselves) can only deal with a certain amount of Middle East conflict at any one time. Also the only Labour party which younger people have known is the Labour governments of 1997-2010 for whom this was not a favourite foreign policy issue. So they may tend to see all Palestinians fighting as the actions of malign terrorists because that’s what so many other people say.

Not only is it strange that the impartial news media omits important context but people who appeared on TV supposedly to support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not explain why the issue of Israel and Palestine has become important for many in the Labour party. About how the Palestinians have been oppressed by the policies of successive Israeli governments, about how Israeli violence is not merely for self-defence, about how the Israeli government is determined that the validity of Palestinian complaints does not get widespread acceptance, about how successive Israeli governments have been condemned by the UN and how their actions have often been compared to the apartheid policies of the white South African governments.


Two views of Jerusalem from its upper slopes.

Two views of street life in Jerusalem.

Women praying at the female section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.


Somehow the idea continues in the UK media that Israel is in danger from the Palestinians. Yet Israel has a successful economy, very powerful armed forces and receives about a billion dollars a year from the USA. Once it was in danger from a unified Arab world, but it has long ago made peace with former enemies Egypt and Jordan. It would not be in danger from any single Palestinian if it ended its blockade, made an effort to make peace with them and help them to rebuild their government and economy.

Following the South Africa parallel, Nelson Mandela was jailed in 1964 because he encouraged the use of violence to achieve his political ends. Yet, while he was still in jail during the 1980s and criticised by many world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, the mainstream UK media still felt able to analyse and criticise the apartheid policies and actions of the South Africa government. Equally, they felt comfortable in reporting the actions of the African National Congress, which sometimes used violence, without automatically condemning them as terrorists or belittling their cause.

Of course, the anti-apartheid movement was strongly united inside South Africa and outside. In addition to the imprisoned Mandela, it had a number of major spokespeople like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In contrast, the Palestinian cause has always been divided, especially, in the last ten years, between the Fatah party which governs the West Bank under approval by the Israeli government and the more militant and controversial Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas’ continually aggressive language (in response to continued aggression from Israel) has allowed their opponents to caricature them as terrorists who would never accept peace. We in the UK might remember that it was only twenty years ago when a long period of political violence in Northern Ireland was ended relatively quickly because all partners showed the will and the effort. Militants from the republican and unionist sides were still publicly holding positions of intransigence while taking part in negotiations behind the scene.

Regardless of our increased education about World War Two, it does seem that the further we move from 1945, the more difficulty we seem to have in understanding or sympathising with other people elsewhere in the world who feel so oppressed or in such danger that they feel it legitimate to use violence in their protests. Such people are often blithely dismissed as terrorists and their sufferings and grievances ignored.

Six years after that first Leaf Collecting post, life for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has seen little improvement and certainly less attention from the UK media. Al Jazheera News is one notable media exception so it was a disappointment for many of us to have it removed from our Freeview TV channels choice in 2016.

As Michael Beer has observed in his Wild Olive website, the Christian churches are always strong and forthright in condemning the oppression of the Palestinians and in calling for peace initiatives. The World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme provides valuable support in situ.

When Christmas has passed and the media has reset to its usual secular position, the churches may be among the few public bodies who continue to give the lives of the Palestinians the appropriate attention.



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Costa-Gavras and “Hanna K.”



A view approximately east of the walled city of Jerusalem, from near the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu.


Costa-Gavras  is one of those veteran film directors who came to prominence in the 1960s and whose work does not enjoy the audience it once did. In his case, it  might demonstrate how a younger generation of both producers and audiences are squeamish about liberal or left-wing perspectives on political topics in cinema, theatre and TV.

Costa-Gavras’ first big success was Z, a political drama set in his native Greece at the time of its military dictatorship, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. A few years later, in 1982, Missing, about an American journalist kidnapped in Chile, won a screenplay Oscar and  acting nominations for Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, and was a commercial success. (It was part of a trend for films about Western journalists in combat zones, like The Year of Living Dangerously, Under Fire, The Killing Fields and Salvador).

I knew that Costa-Gavras had made more films in Hollywood and it was coming across one of these on TV recently which brought his name back to mind.  Mad City stars Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta and deals with the often questionable priorities of 24 hour TV news. It made me think again particularly of the film which he made directly after Missing.

That film was Hanna K. I saw it  in Toronto when I was working there in 1983, but, returning, I never saw it advertised either in a British cinema or on British TV. Later still, when I first became acquainted with film fans’ online bible, Internet Movie Database, the film was not even listed among Costa-Gavras’ works. I almost began to wonder whether I had forgotten the film’s full title, or key parts of its narrative.

These days, happily, Hanna K is listed on imdb.com and until recently it was available to watch on Daily Motion.



Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate.


Its story centres around Hanna Kaufman, an Israeli lawyer, who defends a Palestinian, Salim Bakri. She is first assigned his case to provide a routine defence against terrorism charges, but, later, she represents him in a more substantial action to reclaim possession of his family home which had been lost either in 1948 or 1967.

We see Kaufman visit Bakri’s home village. Its former Arab name has been changed as it has now become an Israeli settlement, and very few Arabs still live in the neighbourhood.

Her superior at her law firm, a conservative Zionist, states clearly that the state of Israel must be defended against its Arab enemies, even if it means treating others as badly as the Jews were themselves treated in the past.  He says, “Do you want us to be a minority in a sea of Arabs, create a new ghetto?…Now we have a country, an identity, we must defend it…if necessary (by refusing the rights of Palestinians)”.



The Western Wall in Jerusalem.


The trial of Bakri gains publicity and leads to Palestinian bombings in protest. The authorities are keen to conclude the trial. They suggest that that Bakri be granted South African citizenship and apply anew for ownership of his property. The trial is settled out of court and Bakri is sentenced to the minimum prison sentence of 8 months.

Kaufman’s perspective of Israeli-Palestine politics is criticised  by her District Attourney lover Joshua Herzog as “romantic, abstract, impassioned… idealistic”. When Kaufman learns that Bakri is undergoing a hunger strike in prison, she  arranges for his parole and lets him stay in her own house, to the particular disapproval of Herzog. Bakri voluntarily departs at the end.

The film is fatally weakened by the dilution of its political theme with another of female independence, which Hollywood was embracing at that time in such varied films as Julia, The Turning Point, An Unmarried Woman, The Rose and  Nine to Five. Jill Clayburgh’s starring role in An Unmarried Woman may have led to her rather unsatisfactory casting here. Kaufman is pregnant at the start of the film but she refuses to marry her lover Herzog, staying friendly with her French husband Victor Bonnet. Later, she is seen embracing Bakri but it is not made clear whether he becomes her lover also.  Insisting that she does not want Herzog involved in her new-born child’s upbringing, she comments rather unpleasantly, “Such a fuss over a few drops of sperm”. Finally, she seeks a divorce from her husband as she wants to re-establish her own identity – “because I don’t know who I am anymore”.



On the road north from Judea into Galilee.


The final scene does at least re-assert the political theme. When both Herzog and Bonnet have left her house, sent away by Kaufman, and she is preparing to take a symbolically cleansing bath, there is a ring at the door. A crowd of armed policemen are there – as alerted earlier by Herzog to arrest Bakri.

There is no doubt that Hanna K is a flawed film, full of confusion and compromises. However it is at least a drama where the issue of Palestinian human rights is depicted fairly and where the Israeli position is put under scrutiny. At least some of the filming took place in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. It is most telling that this curio is the best effort on the issue which mainstream US cinema has managed in 30 years.


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Blog Action Day – inequality

Blog Action Day


In the modern, civilised UK, we still have a great deal of material  and social inequality.

One of our most valuable resources in publicising and analysing these injustices is the writer Owen Jones. For example, he recently reminded us, referring to The Sunday Times Rich List, that “in the last five years …the wealth of the richest 1,000 people has more than doubled. That surge in wealth – of about £261bn – is worth about two and a half times Britain’s annual deficit. Tot up their fortunes and you come up with the sum of £519bn, or about a third of Britain’s annual GDP. And yet in the sixth biggest economy on earth nearly 1 million people have been driven to food banks to feed themselves”.

Such inequality has come about because of flaws in how  the capitalist system works nowadays. Hundreds of thousands of people earning below the minimum wage, millions needing benefits to support their living and housing costs, but many others retaining huge wealth, often aided by the  unchecked inflation in property prices.

In the same article, Owen Jones was critical of the UK’s elected representatives who have failed to alleviate the inequality. They appear to see their job as “a sport, a professional ladder to climb like any investment bank”, he commented wryly, and  “even if the top salary only puts you in the top 3% of earners rather than the top 0.01%…you can always use a future ministerial position as a launchpad for a lucrative job at a private healthcare firm or defence giant anyway.”

How commercial companies create inequality around the world  is the theme of a report by Catholic charity SCIAF.  Taking Care of Business argues that, although commercial business  certainly can play an important part in making the world a more equal place, by generating economic growth, by providing people with paid employment and by paying taxes,  there is unfortunately plenty of evidence that, in  practice, the system is not working well.

Around the world economies do continue to grow, but rather less effort is applied in ensuring that the increased wealth generated by this economic growth is fairly distributed.  Large firms frequently crowd out smaller firms, leading to a loss of livelihoods. Multinational companies deliberately avoid paying taxes denying vast sums to developing countries. Abuses of human rights and the environment take place needlessly.

Regrettably, this bleak pattern is more becoming visible in the countries which we used to characterise as developing.  “According to recent research 80 percent of the world’s population who live on less than $2 a day (two billion people) now live in middle-income countries”.  Although it is good that countries formerly thought of as poor have become wealthier, “this graduation… is not eradicating poverty”.

2015 is the deadline for the eight UN Millennium Development Goals and one of Taking Care of Business’ recommendations is that any further international agreements “should encourage a fair balance between equity and growth, with a specific emphasis on tackling inequality”. Among other recommendations are that the UK government should ensure that all large companies  be required to report on any social, environmental and human rights impacts throughout their supply chains and the steps they are taking to mitigate these, and that the Scottish government should require companies who are tendering for public sector procurement contracts to adhere to rules on tax transparency and on ethical conduct.

One of the most persistent and appalling examples of inequality anywhere in the world during my lifetime  has been the plight of the Palestinian people. The injustice began when Britain gave up occupation of Palestine in 1948 and the state of Israel was founded: as a consequence  thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes and their farming land and given nowhere else to go. After the Six-Day War between Israel and various Arab countries in 1967, Israeli military occupation began, and has continued, with very little change, ever since.

In recent years, the most visible demonstration of the mistreatment of the Palestinians has been the increase in the Israeli building both of settlements in the West Bank and of the separation wall, with the resulting demolition of Palestinian houses, separation of families and communities and restriction of movement . The separate Palestinian territory of Gaza has been under Israeli blockade for seven years. Millions of Palestinian refugees live in poor conditions within the West Bank, Gaza and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

In addition, the Palestinians are continual victims of discrimination and harassment from the Israeli authorities and many have been imprisoned without trial. Any progress in peace has been regularly restricted by the spread of false arguments that all Palestinians want to kill the Jewish people or to destroy the state of Israel.  It seems especially cruel that the leaders of the Jewish people, who themselves remember well the pain of past persecution, have been so willing to apply similar treatment to neighbours who are  mostly so much less well off than themselves.




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The little town which casts a big shadow


Christmastide continues until early January, and Bethlehem is the place where, it’s often said, it’s Christmas every day of the year. It is the place where, Christians believe, Jesus Christ was born, in a cave or stable which is marked by a shrine in the Church of the Nativity.


One evening in Bethlehem, October 2012 – Manger Square is located just beyond the buildings in the centre.



According to tradition, this silver star in the Grotto of the Nativity marks the place of Christ’s birth.


Once a year, at Christmas, Bethlehem seems to belong to everyone, the one time of the year when it’s given attention by all of the world’s media. The Washington Post  pointed out that, this year,  both Israeli and Palestinian authorities had  released video messages to attract the world’s Christians.

In grimly apposite fashion, the great Christian basilica in Manger Square which commemorates Christ’s nativity is actually looked after by three separate faiths : the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox church and the Armenian Apostolic church. The church where the Christmas Midnight Mass is celebrated so publicly, as in 2012, is actually only one part, the Church of St Catherine.

At other times of the year, Bethlehem is very much part of the embattled Palestinian territories, surrounded by Israeli settlements and separated from Jerusalem by the infamous separation barrier. The town has high unemployment and little economic development and is heavily dependent on the tourists who come to visit the site of the Christian Christmas story.


One of the separation wall checkpoints which travellers from Bethlehem to Jerusalem must pass through.


In Bethlehem, with one of the many Israeli settlements nearby.


The UN’s vote to raise the Palestinians’ status to that of non-member observer state has been welcomed by the people themselves, and so can be seen as a clear step forward in their international fortunes in 2013. Perhaps US President Barack Obama will draw energy from his re-election to push forward the stalled peace process. One definite drawback for international understanding was the closure last August, mostly for commercial reasons apparently, of Bitter Lemons, the news and analysis website run jointly by an Israeli and a Palestinian – although some of their excellent content remains available for the time being.


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