Politically incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea

This is my review of  Politically Incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea  by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

I came to read this book through being so intrigued by a third generation Jewish Israeli journalist who felt impelled to write such a provocatively titled memoir. Her assessment of the errors which she believes will cause the ongoing “inner crumbling” of Israel in its present form are refracted through article-like chapters on her life and that of her family members back to  the economic need or desire for freedom from religious control which led them to emigrate to the land of Israel before it became an independent state.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth does not  condemn the existence of Israel as such. Two weeks after the end of the Six Day War, she set off without a qualm on a family tour of the newly occupied West Bank. When Egyptian President Sadat  recognised Israel in his historic meeting with the right-wing leader Menachem Begin, she wrote optimistically of her country finding “its true vocation, which is to become an integral part of the Middle East” without the intercession of “meddling” foreign diplomats, distorting issues and restricting “the power of the imagination” through translating Hebrew and Arabic via the medium of the English language. These views are not surprising, since as a child she was taught how her grandparents  had come to the country and built it up from nothing, and that she had a responsibility to continue their work in a unique but vulnerable Israel. “The only Jewish state in the world was small but brave, poor but just”.

Perhaps the experience of being half-Yemeni, in a racially prejudiced Israel initially dominated by white east European Ashkenazi Jews, made the author more sympathetic to the growing plight of the Palestinian Arabs dispossessed  of the their lands. Certainly, by the end of the book she is advocating dismantling unauthorised settlements in more than a cosmetic exercise and getting out of lands illegally settled under international law. In what she insists is “not mission impossible”, the author argues that the land which Ariel Sharon claimed could take 15 million residents should be one where Jews and Palestinians agree to “live in a normal state as equal citizens living in one territory”, rather than one reserved for those with “the right religion as an entry card”.

This is why her initial and most polemical focus is on the negative implications of the alliance which has grown between the government and deeply religious Orthodox Jews who maintain the raison d’être for an exclusive and expansionist state.  She describes the heavy state support for the lifestyles of the Haredi, whose menfolk devote their lives to studying religious texts, exempt from national service, and massive subsidies for the settlers of the occupied territories, “easily identifiable by their uniform of yarmulkes and bearded faces and by their battered vehicles overloaded with children”. In addition, she lambasts the increased Orthodox influence on state education,   and its controls on marriage to non-Jews, weddings, funerals, and the practice of circumcision even for secular Jews, not to mention kosher food, all of which serve to maintain a sense of  inward-looking separation and superiority.

This book is often wordy and long-winded, assumes a good deal of prior knowledge, sometimes seems too subjective, slapdash or stilted in style. I imagine it will enrage many of the author’s compatriots, but in its  frankness and heart-felt sincerity, it is also a very informative, thought-provoking, insightful with wry humour, evocative, fascinating read.

The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

This is my review of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

With the chilling downward spiral back into Cold War politics, it seems more vital than ever to understand why the Putin regime operates as it does and most Russians accept it.

This impressively clear and insightful analysis gains authenticity from the journalist author’s fluent grasp of Russian, his study of the country’s history, and time spent living and travelling widely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). He has sought a fresh perspective in his focus on “the ghosts of the past”, which in various ways cripple and distort the current state of society.

As a student, Shaun Walker saw first-hand the “poverty, widespread squalor and rampant exploitation” in Moscow a decade after the collapse of communism, which left many Russians feeling disoriented and rootless. In the vacuum created by the sudden break-up of the USSR, Putin was resolved not merely to stabilise the economy but to establish Russia in what he saw as its rightful place as a “first rank” global power.

Shaun Walker repeatedly returns to the “memory politics” which Putin has used to raise morale and forge a sense of unity: at the heart of this is the continued celebration of Russian victory in “saving the world from fascism” in World War Two, without any admission of Stalin’s tyranny, such as the mass deportation to remote labour camps of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Walker cites the headteacher in a rundown Irkutsk suburb where some families have had to cut back on food recently. “Patriotism is the most important thing” she declares, having reintroduced the old Soviet uniform for her pupils, to improve morale. The parents approve of Putin’s efforts to fight corruption, probably unaware of the extent of his own unreported wealth together with that of his cronies.

As suggested by these examples, Shaun Walker proceeds through a series of case studies mainly based on peripheral regions closer to Western Europe where there is more history and risk of uprisings: Georgia, the Ukraine and Chechnya. In the latter, generous investment for the reconstruction of places like Grozny combined with the desire for stability, have encouraged people to treat as “an inconvenient and ignored detail” the fact that their leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s father led Chechens to fight the Russians in the 1990s. Grozny’s central avenue has been renamed from “Victory Avenue” to “Putin Avenue”. The author writes of how Chechens “build walls around certain events in their lives, so that they can often only speak in half-memories and platitudes” and quotes Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways”.

We are shown how Putin’s attitudes have evolved. Initially wishing to be a respected and reliable ally of the west, even suggesting that Russia might join the EU or NATO, he began to feel cold-shouldered and threatened by western support for rebels in Georgia and Ukraine. This pushed him towards a kind of continuation of the old tsarist empire, supported by a mixture of renewed religious Orthodoxy, political autocracy with a “window-dressing” of democracy and pride in nationality. A “natural state of confrontation” with external powers has now “won the day” as illustrated by the annexation of the Crimea, justified by the need to “right the wrong” of Krushchev’s relinquishment to Ukraine of an area which was historically Russian until 1954.

There is passing reference to the distorted reporting of foreign affairs and failure to investigate and bring to convincing justice the murderers of journalists who threaten to “rock the boat” by probing the system too deeply, but this grim legacy of a ruthless authoritarian past is not explored in great depth. Although fascinating, the analysis seems incomplete in its neglect of other major relevant aspects, like Putin’s suppression of true democracy in the form of Alexei Navalny, a potentially major opponent denied from standing for election on what sound like bogus charges of embezzlement. The same applies to the implications of the suspicious death in custody of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, alleged moves to undermine western democracy by influencing elections, and renewed assertiveness in bombing Syria.To be fair, Putin’s recent vaunting of “new weaponry he claims will render NATO defences completely useless” and the bizarre poisoning of the Skripals in Britain came too late for this book.