Urgent need to address roots of hate

Iran's president poses a challenge for Muslims - but for Jews as well

Published in the Jewish Chronicle 30 December 2005

No one wants to end the year on a downer, but I?m in a mood I can?t quite shake. Who?s to blame? His name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and he is the President of Iran.

Plenty of JC readers will share my disquiet at the antics of this man who has, in the past few months, both called for Israel to be wiped off the map and denied the truth of the Holocaust. It would be nice to write him off as a bigot with a screw loose, but we can?t. He is not David Irving; he is the head of government of a major country which aspires to be both a regional superpower and the leader of the Muslim world.

All of which would be enough to get anyone down, but that?s not the chief reason for my doldrums. Earlier this month, I wrote a column for the Guardian denouncing both Ahmadinejad and the wider phenomenon of hate of which he is only the newest and most prominent manifestation. ?We can deny it no longer,? I wrote. ?The virus of anti-Semitism has infected the Muslim world.?

Like other pieces by other people on this subject, the column triggered an enormous response, with several hundred emails arriving from all over the world. And it?s these which have me worried. What they reveal is that Jews and Muslims are in a state of deep, mutual hostility and suspicion.

Of course, there were exceptions, but a huge number of Jewish correspondents faulted me only for not going further. I should have said that Ahmadinejad is nothing new since Muslims have always hated Jews, treated them at best as second-class citizens, that Jew-hatred is innate and encoded into their holiest texts.

I should have said that Muslims will not rest till they have destroyed Israel, that they regard all Jews as inferior and that those who cannot see the danger looming are as blind as those who sought to appease Hitler.

From dozens of readers, the message was clear: we are on the brink of a second Holocaust, except now we shall be killed in the name of Allah.

From Muslims, there was a different response. A gratifying number wrote to tell me they were ashamed of the Iranian President and wanted nothing to do with his anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But very many others wrote to say that, if it was wrong to deny the Holocaust, then it was equally wrong to deny Israel?s crimes against the Palestinians. Some of these spoke as apocalyptically as the Jewish readers, accusing Israel of a genocidal campaign against Muslims; others trotted out ugly, familiar lines, including the one about the Jewish-owned media.

It was impossible to wade through this email avalanche without feeling that we have come to a dangerous pass. Two global communities face each other in what increasingly looks like a state of conflict. Many on both sides assume the worst of the other; both speak as if a bloody confrontation is inevitable.

So now I?m in no doubt: we have to move to change this situation. In that Guardian column, I urged Muslims (and their progressive allies in Britain and elsewhere) to repudiate the sickness of anti-Semitism and to do it fast. But, if they must act, then so must we. Plenty of Jewish commentators have been content simply to expose again and again the extent of Muslim antipathy to Jews and Is-rael. Their core thesis can be boiled down to six words: ?See, they really, really hate us.?

I don?t think repeating that statement, whipping up our own fears, however justified, gets us very far. Instead, we have to do what we tell Muslims to do: look in the mirror and face some uncomfortable facts about ourselves.

Now, I don?t buy the idea ? raised in hundreds of those emails ? that this surge in Jew-hatred is simply a response to Israel and its conduct. For one thing, I don?t think it?s ever right to blame the victim of racism for racism: if people hate Jews, that?s the anti-Semites? fault, not the Jews. Second, it?s quite clear that Muslims were making life awkward for Jews long before Zionism.

Nevertheless, we have to try, for our own sake, to see how we got here. And that means admitting that Israel is, at the very least, part of the story. Here?s how things seem to have worked. Many Muslims have, especially since 1967, been angered by Israel?s occupation and harsh treatment of Palestinians. They see a community, namely Jews, that, mainly, supports and defends Israel. They find themselves at odds with this community, believing it to be on the wrong side of an urgent, humanitarian question. Forty years of that opposition soon becomes antagonism: they oppose these Jews who apparently stand with the Is-raeli occupier. And eventually that antagonism stirs something much worse, reawakening a prejudice that explodes into the toxic anti-Semitism we see today.

I know that?s not the whole story. Some Muslims would hate Jews even if we were still in Russia and had never got near Palestine. And, yes, plenty of Jews already criticise and debate Israel in a spirit of pluralism absent from most of the Muslim world. But, rationally, we surely have to admit that four decades of mainstream Jewish support for an occupation Muslims believe, rightly or wrongly, is mistreating their brothers has created fertile ground for the belief that the Jews are against them, and worse.

Some Jews ? including the London-based analyst Tony Klug ? warned of precisely this sequence of cause and effect 30 years ago. Few wanted to listen then, but now we must. Muslims have to look deep into their own souls and see the abyss into which they are falling. But we surely have to do the same.

Legalise the vice trade

As the Government plans another crackdown on prostitution, we need a new approach to the oldest profession

Published in the Evening Standard 29 December 2005

It was a stare like none I?d ever seen. The eyes were laser-focussed, as if trying to bore into me. I was driving home and she was on a street corner; I made eye contact, trying to work out if she wanted to cross the road, but the look she gave back confirmed she was no ordinary pedestrian. It was a gaze that sought to be both alluring and to communicate a hard, urgent fact: ?Yes,? the eyes said, ?I am for sale.?

That was the first proof I had seen of something I had long heard. That on a corner of Green Lanes, just before the Seven Sisters Road, there is a brisk trade in human flesh: prostitutes, relocated to N16 after, so it?s said, they?d been chased out of Kings Cross.

I reacted like most people who discover the sex trade has come to their neighbourhood: not in my backyard. I didn?t want my children knowing of such things, let alone living within walking distance of them. Which should make me a natural supporter of the Government?s latest scheme to crack down on street prostitution.

The plans, aired in yesterday?s Guardian, aim to make life harder for the men who pay for sex. From now on police will take away kerb-crawlers? driving licences, even publish their names in the local papers. Also in the frame are the brothels disguised as massage parlours and saunas: the government wants to close them down. Perfect timing for Westminster council who, along with the police, are already seeking to clean up one of London?s most notorious areas for prostitution, Sussex Gardens in Paddington.

My gut reaction is to demand some of that same strong medicine for my own neighbourhood. After all, this is a vile industry, one that trades on human misery. Literature and movies still insist on depicting prostitutes either as glamour girls ? think Sharon Stone in Casino ? or tarts with a heart. The reality is much uglier, with the women involved routinely exploited and abused, whether by pimps who steal their earnings in the name of protection or ?clients? who turn violent. Surveys suggest that of the 30,000 women at work on Britain?s streets every night, two in three have been raped or severely beaten in the last year. And casting a pall over the whole business, inseparable from it, is drugs. I can still see the face of that woman on the street corner: the hollow cheeks, the unnaturally sharp jawbone. Chances are, she was one of the 95% of street-walking women who, according to Home Office estimates, are hooked on heroin or crack.

So anything which confronts this desperate trade has to be welcome. Except the government did not face a choice between this new plan and doing nothing. There was, to coin a phrase, a third way ? and it was floated just 18 months ago by a previous Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

Responding to pressure from police forces in Liverpool and elsewhere, he suggested local authorities be allowed to create ?red light? zones where prostitution would be tolerated, with a few small, licensed brothels and a register of sex-workers. These would not be in residential areas, but far away from schools and playgrounds, perhaps on industrial estates.

Yes, there were strong counter-arguments. For one thing, the government would be lending tacit endorsement to an appalling industry (though there are plenty of perfectly legal businesses that are hardly moral). For another, the evidence from tolerance zones elsewhere was mixed. Some Australian states tried it and found that, while the sanctioned trade boomed, so did the illicit one. Leith in Edinburgh had a go, but the project was abandoned. Experts said one problem was that any area deemed suitable was usually too remote to attract clients ? who stuck with the old, illegal streets instead.

So the government has rejected that initial proposal, in favour of another push for its get-tough, ?respect? agenda. But it could be making a mistake. For the underlying logic of tolerance zones remains sound: namely, that prostitution has been around too long to be eradicated and therefore has to be managed. Of course, that?s sad: in an ideal world such exploitative relations between men and women would have vanished long ago. But prostitution is a reality. And as things stand, the law is making a bad problem much worse.

Because the entire trade is illegal, there?s no way to regulate it ? no way to ensure even a minimum degree of health and safety for the women who work in it. Licensing would allow police to check women were not underage or working under violent duress; there could be regular health checks. Nor would prostitutes need to ply their trade in dark, remote backstreets, where they are least safe.

If women could turn to police for protection, they would have no need of the pimps who exploit their vulnerability. Right now, few sex-workers go to the police when they are victims of crime and no wonder: the authorities might fine them ? sending them right back on the streets to earn more cash.

If anything, small zones of tolerance might not go far enough. Full legalisation, as demanded by the English Prostitutes? Collective, might be the only way. But the current set-up ? with some 32 different offences, from living off immoral earnings to soliciting ? is, after half a century, creaking badly. Prostitution sits at the heart of a very modern set of crimes, from international drugs to people trafficking. A few snaps of red-faced men in the local papers is not going to solve it.

All three main parties like to talk these days of decentralisation and local empowerment. Well, here?s a perfect example. If local police forces and authorities want to try a new approach to this oldest of problems, then let them. A national crackdown may bring an eye-catching headline, but it won?t provide an answer – not for that woman with the cold, broken eyes or for the people who live near her.

Keep London quirky

As retail rents rocket, homogeneous chain stores are benefiting at the expense of the one-off independent. Without action, our city will soon be just another 'clonetown'

Published in the Evening Standard 22 December 2005

Are you a planner or a panicker? Did you do your Christmas shopping six months ago, leaving a neat pile of pre-wrapped gifts ready to go? Or have you blocked out all thought of the task ahead, putting it off to a last-minute rush after work tomorrow or even on Saturday, the Christmas equivalent of one minute to midnight?

Either way, you may have had this worry: what if you buy the same present as everyone else? What if you pick out a DVD at HMV or a sweater at Gap that someone else has bought for the same person? What if your choices look unoriginal or, worse, impersonal?

It's highly likely. After all, there's little to stop us buying the same things ? because, in today's London, we're all buying from the same shops.

Campaigners call it the rise and rise of the ?clonetown?, the identikit high streets packed with the same shops, same coffee shops and same banks ? on and on until one place is indistinguishable from the other. The phenomenon has spread across Britain, so that a street in Exeter is depressingly identical to one in Carlisle ? both with branches of Next, Orange and Starbucks ? but it is no less visible in London. The capital, which once regarded itself with pride as a collection of distinct villages, now risks turning into one big clonetown.

Some of the city's most famous shopping streets are coming under this all too earthly Attack of the Clones. Portobello market in Notting Hill is the latest to see rent prices rocket, forcing out one-off, local traders to make way for big-shot chains with the cash to pay. The famous 192 restaurant has lost out to a pizza chain, while the galleries and antiques dealers around Westbourne Grove have been replaced by the likes of Whistles and LK Bennett. Much loved local shops ? selling stationery or second hand books ? can't hold on when their rent is jacked up to #120,000 a year.

Should we care? Maybe this is just the onward march of the market. Besides, if we're honest, we must quite like the big high-street chains or they wouldn't be in business. There is a convenience to having a familiar, established brand around the corner. And while we may romanticise, say, the local greengrocers of old, we also know that today that can mean a few manky carrots on sale outside a newsagents ? when we'd rather stock up at a gleaming Tesco Express.

Even so, while we may appreciate the presence of at least some of the big players, the picture changes when they dominate. The aesthetic objection is the most obvious: it's a dull city in which every street looks the same. There are sound economic arguments, too. Local, one-off businesses have a beneficial ?multiplier? effect: they're more likely to use local suppliers, from accountants to window cleaners, than a national chain. While a successful branch of Starbucks helps Starbucks, a thriving local coffee shop helps the whole neighbourhood.

Less obviously, the local shop provides a kind of social glue. Where I used to live, in Clerkenwell, Raj the newsagent acted as an unofficial communal noticeboard, the only person in the area who knew everybody. I now live in Stoke Newington, where Church Street is one of those increasingly rare London delights ? a street entirely free of big-name chains. The local bike shop, Two Wheels Good, feels less like a business than a community service, one where customers are treated like fellow residents rather than mere sources of revenue. There's none of what Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation, which recently published a report on clonetowns, calls the ?hideous codification of human interaction? - a reference to the scripted manuals which tell chain store staff the precise phrases they are allowed to use when talking to customers.

The distinct, one-off shop is part of what makes London work. They even come together to form clusters, often of the most unexpected kind. Tottenham Court Road has cheap electronic goods on one side, furniture on the other. Soho has a little knot of vinyl record shops, acting as a magnet more powerful than one shop could ever be on its own. And if Soho has its own sex industry, there is a sub-economy on Peter Street: a cluster of stores specialising in S &M gear. Not exactly Dorothy Perkins and the Woolwich ? and impossible to find in clonetown.

So how to preserve the peculiar and quirky, while keeping the juggernauts at bay? Plenty of retailers look to Marylebone High Street as the model, a gorgeous area of cheese shops and boutiques with barely an Accessorize in sight. That feat was pulled off by the good sense of the local freeholder, the De Walden estate, which saw the financial sense in keeping out tacky chain stores, watching the area's reputation rise ? so that it might reap the future benefit in premium rents.

Most areas are not so lucky. They couldn't draw the same upmarket shops and they are run by the council rather than a private estate ? and councils have no power to keep the lid on rents. But there's still plenty that can be done. The Friends of Portobello campaign want to make theirs the first business conservation area in the UK, preserving shops rather like listed buildings. Tony Travers, the London specialist at the LSE, likes the idea, already underway, of retailers clubbing together to form Business Improvement Districts which can then devise Marylebone-style strategies for their area. Personally, I'd like to see a revival of a now lapsed US scheme ? taxing chain stores so that the more outlets they have, the higher tax they pay. That would even things up a bit.

None of this can happen, though, unless there is political will. Local authorities, however well meaning, don't have the muscle to stop the onward march of the clones. Only national government can do that. And they won't ? unless we find a way to tell them to.

Ken’s one-man show

All of British politics may be in flux, but the Mayor enjoys an unchallenged position in the capital

Published in the Evening Standard 15 December 2005

Incredibly, a row which should have ended nearly 12 months ago is going to stretch into another year. Yesterday the Independent Adjudication Panel for England ? an ethics watchdog meant to supervise the conduct of local government officials in England ? adjourned its hearing into the row that has dogged Ken Livingstone through 2005. The Panel had to decide whether the mayor brought his office into disrepute when he likened Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold to a Nazi war criminal and a concentration camp guard outside a party last February ? and yesterday it put off that decision till next month at the earliest.

Don?t worry, I?m not going to rehash the arguments on both sides of this long, sorry story. Whatever the merits of their original positions, both sides should have moved to close this saga down a long time ago. The mayor could simply have apologised for any offence caused to Jewish Londoners at the start, while the Standards Board ? the body acting as prosecutor ? could have decided it had no business investigating late-night exchanges between politicians and journalists. Both sides would have saved us all hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But the row goes on, threatening Livingstone with censure or, worse, suspension ? thereby temporarily stripping him of his powers and handing them to the London Assembly. That couldn?t happen at a more sensitive time ? just as the mayor is drawing up his budget.

What?s strange about the whole business is that this cloud hangs over Livingstone just as the rest of his sky looks so clear. For, far away from yesterday?s tribunal and the Finegold row, the mayor has pulled off one of the most astonishing political transformations of our time. Once a backbench has-been, a relic of the forgotten battles of the 1980s, he is now in the most commanding position enjoyed by any politician on these islands.

Just look around. In the rest of the UK, the story of December 2005 has been the restoration of normal political life. Rejuvenated Conservatives now promise a return to familiar two-party combat, as they at last seem capable of threatening the government. After eight years in which New Labour’s dominance was total, David Cameron’s arrival has suddenly put the Tories in contention.

It?s a new landscape ? one in which all the key players have reason to worry. Tony Blair now frets that his authority is draining away. Gordon Brown fears that, next to Cameron, he will look like last year?s model. And Cameron knows that, for all the euphoria, he has a steep mountain to climb: to win an overall majority at the next election he would need to win a staggering 130 seats.

Elsewhere in the UK, there are similarly furrowed brows. Labour rule in Scotland, but only in coalition with the Lib Dems. In Wales, Labour’s grip is similarly perilous.

London is the exception. Here Livingstone’s command is total. The Tories may be giving Labour sleepless nights nationally, but for Livingstone they pose only the remotest danger: try as they might, his own aides cannot name a Conservative who could plausibly challenge the mayor and hope to win.

It used to be that the mayor’s greatest headache came from his own side. It was Tony Blair who predicted that Livingstone would be a ?disaster? for London. Brown, meanwhile, made himself a roadblock in the mayor’s path ? thwarting his dreams of taking charge of the Tube.

Yet now Livingstone?s relationship with Labour is all hugs and back-slaps. Just this month the government proposed giving the mayor a clutch of new powers ? over everything from waste to planning. Ask why and ministers will admit that the PM got it wrong: Livingstone has not been a disaster. Instead, the mayoralty has proved a success, with tangible achievements from the congestion charge to an increase in bus usage.

Now in its third term, the government is desperate to find mechanisms that can deliver. Despairing of the national bureaucracy and vast, lumbering government departments, they find the mayor’s office a surprisingly effective alternative. That’s partly why they want to beef up Livingstone’s powers. They hope London will become an attractive model for other British cities, as Manchester or Birmingham decide they want some of what Ken’s having. On this, unusually, both Blair and Brown seem united. I’m told that even Brown’s Treasury now enjoys a healthy working relationship with the mayor’s office ? despite their sour history.

It seems an impossibly rosy picture: rave reviews from business for his stewardship of the Olympic bid, plaudits for his first response to the July 7 bombings, a consensus that as an executive, the mayor gets things done.

So politically the sky is blue, the view from City Hall spoiled only by the ongoing Finegold row. Underneath that apparently technical, legalistic dispute is a genuine political problem for the mayor. It is that much of London’s Jewish community continue to believe that the mayor ? so attentive to the needs of other minorities ? somehow has a blind spot, if not worse, when it comes to them. It?s not just crass remarks about war criminals. It?s also his embrace of the Egyptian cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose belief that suicide bombing is always wrong unless the victims are Israeli, hurts Jews badly.

There are others who share the Jewish community?s frustration. Gay activist Peter Tatchell has railed against Ken?s indulgence of Qaradawi, given the latter?s brutal attitudes to homosexuality, while plenty of Londoners shake their heads when they hear their mayor sound off on foreign policy questions that, they believe, should be none of his business.

But the outlet for this discontent must be political, not legal. It has to be voters, not an unelected quango, that removes Livingstone from power ? if that?s what Londoners want. Right now, his political position is almost uniquely strong. If voters want to turn that around, they will have to start making that case not in a tribunal, but in the public square. Given how things stand, that will be a tall order. But that?s what democracy is all about.

My journey into the past

If a week in Russia made me feel like a stranger, how will second-generation Britons feel in years to come?

Published in the Evening Standard 1 December 2005

I?ve been in a country that should have felt like home ? and yet it couldn?t have felt more foreign.

I?ve spent the week in Russia, the country my great-grandfathers left behind just over a century ago. I walked the streets, listened to the language, watched the faces, searching for a flicker of familiarity. But I felt as much an outsider there as I would in Congo or China.

That hardly makes sense. Both my father?s grandfathers were born in Russia. The one whose story I know best, Berel Mindel, grew up in a tiny rural hamlet, Dunilovich, on a patch of land that would be claimed in the course of his lifetime by Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Belarus: it was not so much no-man?s land as everyman?s land. But when in later life he or his four brothers were asked where they came from, they would say Russia ? usually with a vague wave of the hand over the shoulder, as if to say ?back there somewhere.? When they arrived in newly Edwardian London in 1902, their papers were in Russian.

The strange alphabet I saw on street signs and newspapers would have been utterly familiar to them: it was the Latin alphabet of English that took some decoding. The music I heard on car radios, a kind of plonking Vodka mix of accordion and balalaika, would have surrounded their childhoods. The oppressive cold and bathwater grey skies would have felt entirely natural.

But not to me. I needed translation, in every sense. Western brand names ? which now fill the post-Soviet skyline ? were a rare handle of familiarity I could grasp; the rest was entirely exotic, as remote from my own life as Tokyo or Tunis.

There are some obvious explanations for this disconnect. For one thing, neither the Mindels nor the Freedlands were from Moscow. They lived in the Russian sticks, far away from the sophistication of the big city. The grandeur of St Basils Cathedral or Red Square would have been as alien to them as to me.

And, crucially, they were Jews. If the faces I saw in Moscow looked so different from my own, that?s how my great-grandparents would have felt too. As Jews, they were permanent outsiders ? regarded as a tribe apart. They would not have been seen, and probably did not regard themselves, as ?Russian? at all.

That rule, incidentally, still applies in today?s Russia ? to Jews but also to the scores of different minorities that live in the country. All citizens are Rossiskii, but only those ethnically Russian can call themselves Russki. And the Mindels and Freedlands were certainly not Russki.

Sure, they would have spoken Russian for any contact with authority, but their mother tongue would have been Yiddish. They would have eaten different food, listened to different music, told different stories.

Which was why I felt the twinge of recognition only twice this week ? once when I was looking for it and once by surprise. The first came with a visit to Chagall, a kosher restaurant named after the great Russian-Jewish painter. Amid prints of the artist?s trademark flying brides and moon-lit goats, I was served a chicken soup that tasted like home ? accompanied by black bread just like the one I remember from my great-aunt Yiddi?s house.

The second moment caught me off guard. I was interviewing the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now a political campaigner who pointedly does not rule out a future run for the Russian presidency. (He is Jewish and therefore has no chance, say most sceptical observers.) He spoke with a tinge of world-weary humour that I recognised immediately: his manner would have made him fit right in with any Jewish gathering, in London or New York.

All of which has got me thinking. For if this is the way I, the great-grandchild of immigrants, feel about the country that would have been classified as my forebears? ?motherland?, what might that say for the generations that came to Britain later ? including the newcomers of today?

My hunch is that their grandchildren will feel the way I did this week. Talk to young, British-born Pakistanis or Indians and many will describe how they feel when they go ?back home? ? as if they are neither going back nor going home. Some have the language, but many don?t; others find their humour, their entire outlook, is worlds apart from the one they encounter in what is meant to be ?the old country.? They come away with a new feeling ? that they are, in fact, very British.

If that is true of these second-generation immigrants, it will surely get truer by the time it reaches the fourth generation ? where I am now. The connection with the ?country of origin? will fade away.

But, if the Jewish experience is any guide, that will not be the whole story. The sense of identity, even of difference, will endure. It may take new forms ? sometimes taking on new religious intensity, sometimes expressing itself as solidarity with a wider, global community ? but it will not go away.

For Jews, that has meant a surge towards orthodoxy in some places, a strong affinity with Israel in others and often both at the same time. What it has not meant is any great desire to reforge the link with Russia or Poland or Lithuania or any of the other places Jews were, crucially, only too happy to leave behind.

Of course, the experience of Black and Asian Britons has not been the same. But it seems perfectly possible that the British Pakistanis of Southall or the British Bengalis of Brick Lane will find their children and grandchildren feeling less and less Pakistani or Bengali as time goes on – but no less Muslim. Indeed, that trend already seems to be underway. And one day, perhaps, they will visit Karachi or Dhaka ? and they will feel as I did in Moscow this week, recognising almost nothing.