London doesn’t need Las Vegas-on-Thames

Published in the Evening Standard 25 May 2006

By rights we should be celebrating: we?ve just won two shots at the jackpot. The prize in question is the right to open Britain?s first super-casino ? a huge gambling palace with no fewer than 1,250 slot machines offering an unlimited payout. On the final shortlist of eight, announced yesterday, London is represented twice. Now both Wembley stadium and the Millennium Dome will slug it out against rivals from Blackpool, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester. That gives us a one in four chance ? or as the bookies would put it, 3 to 1.

After our triumph in the Olympics last year, we should be confident: we?re on a winning streak. Besides, London has a serious advantage. Industry sources tell me that casinos flourish when they?re close to a diverse population. Apparently, ethnic minorities ? Chinese, Cypriots, Jews, Indians ? are disproportionately keen on a night out at the blackjack tables. So much so that the white homogeneity of a town like Blackpool could count against it. As it did with the Olympics, our very variety could bring us success.

And surely Londoners should be crossing their fingers for this contest. What could be better than finding a clear, profitable use for the Dome ? once doomed to be a white elephant, transformed instead into a Vegas-on-Thames? Alternatively, wouldn?t it be great if the beleaguered rebuilding of Wembley stadium could be redeemed by victory in the race to build the biggest casino in Europe?

Advocates say it won?t just be gamblers who will benefit. The whole, winning area will gain from the massive injection of cash. And this will be massive. An initial spend of

How a writer got us talking

Published in the Jewish Chronicle 19 May 2006

The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz likes to remark that Israel still adheres to a tradition almost absent from the Anglo-Saxon world, in which writers are treated as prophets, their words seized on as guidance for where the nation is going wrong - and where it should go next.

The last fortnight has seen proof that Oz's maxim still holds true - indeed, that it extends beyond Israel. For it is a writer, Oz's contemporary AB Yehoshua, who has sparked one of the most intense and thoughtful debates among world Jewry for many years.

To summarise, Yehoshua caused a storm at the centennial symposium of the American Jewish Committee when he joined a panel of luminaries to discuss the future of the Jewish people. He articulated the position for which he has long been well-known, namely that a true, complete Jewish identity was only possible in Israel. Diaspora Jews, distant from both the land and language of the Jewish people, necessarily lived only a partial, incomplete Jewish life. They were not taking part in the creation of a living, breathing Jewish society. Their Jewish values were ?located in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays.?

This is not a new argument for Yehoshua or indeed for the Jewish people. On the contrary, it's as old as modern Zionism itself. For more than a century, since a lunatic fringe first suggested Jews should live in their own state, this debate has raged among our people. It's just that these days it is so rarely heard, when arguments over Zionism tend to be about Israel's conduct and its treatment of the Palestinians. There was a time when the question of Zionism was the one raised so ferociously by Yehoshua: namely, how can Jewish life best flourish, in a Jewish state or by living as a minority among the nations of the earth?

My gut instinct is still with Yehoshua. I say ?still? because his brand of hardcore, classic Zionism is the one I was filled with as a teenager, raised with the Zionist verities of Habonim-Dror. We too believed, with Yehoshua, that diaspora life was doomed, either to murderous destruction or to a gradual fading away, like a drop of ink in a bowl of water.

So my 20 year old self cheers Yehoshua. Indeed, check out the Haaretz website where this argument has been running and you?ll see he?s not the only one who still holds the Zionist faith: fascinatingly, there is a long list of Israeli leftists whose Zionism is just as unflinching as his. Among them is Yossi Beilin, whose very intelligent essay struck a particular chord. He noted how the diaspora Jew ?will find himself in a synagogue belonging to one Jewish movement or another, even if he is not religiously observant at all?, for want of a collective outlet for his Jewish identity.

That could be me ? and plenty of people I know. In our youth movement days we never imagined it would come to this, that, like our parents before us, we would resort to the old modes of Jewish practice. Back then, we held to Beilin?s view: ?In Israel, you can stay away from religious ritual and still know that your children will remain Jewish, because their environment is a Jewish environment,? speaking Hebrew, studying Jewish history.

I nod to most of that, but not all. For though a Jewish life in Israel is more automatic, even more natural, than diaspora it is not as uncomplicated as Yehoshua and Beilin imply. For a form of assimilation exists there too, as countless Israelis grow up, despite their schooling, with only the dimmest knowledge of Jewish, as opposed, to Israeli tradition and thinking. We?ve all met them. They are the men and women who the late, unlamented extremist Meir Kahane said were turning Israel into a ?Hebrew-speaking Portugal,? a Mediterranean country like any other.

More painful is the harsh fact that Israel in its day to day conduct is often a long way from what most of us would consider Jewish values ? in its treatment of Palestinians and foreign workers especially. This, after all, was the week when Israel?s Supreme Court ruled that while Israeli Jews can live with their non-Israeli spouses in Israel, the same right does not apply to Israeli Arabs when their partners are Palestinian. A clear violation of human rights, in the words of Israel?s Chief Justice, who was in the dissenting minority.

The truth is that there is no perfection on either side. Israeli lives may be more automatically Jewish, but not necessarily more deeply so. Either way, this is a conversation that we Jews, in Israel and outside, badly need to have. And how Jewish that it took a writer to make us have it.

Winners, losers and broken promises

Arsenal FC have more than last night’s defeat to mull over. Their move to a new stadium has short-changed the local community

Published in the Evening Standard 18 May 2006

There’s a cloud over Highbury today. The whole of N5 was readying itself for a victory parade; instead it will be a day for stoicism and graceful acceptance of defeat. The talk in Gunner-land will not be of Thierry’s glory or Arsene’s magic, but of a Champions League final marred by a red card, missed opportunities and heavy disappointment.

Now, I don?t want to add to their woes, but there’s another, different competition which Arsenal deserve to lose. In the contest to be a good corporate citizen, the club – not the team – have let themselves and their supporters down badly. Their conduct shames them more than the defeat last night ? and it tells a story that goes way beyond both Arsenal and football. It?s a story about the power big companies wield in cities like London – and the failure of our elected representatives to stop them.

I?m talking about the new Emirates stadium where Arsenal will kick off the next season. It?s widely seen as a success story, built on time and to budget: a shining, steel-and-glass contrast with the fiasco of Wembley. But the Emirates tale is not all cheers and laps of honour. For Arsenal and the developers it hired have angered local people by breaking one promise after another.

When they were granted planning permission in 2002, Arsenal said that coaches carrying supporters would park underneath the stadium. Now that plan?s been dropped on grounds of ?security.? Instead up to 40 coaches will park on surrounding streets, choking those areas to all who live on them.

That?s not all. Arsenal promised they would rebuild a sports centre demolished as part of the new development. There was great excitement, especially among Highbury?s young people; the club said its players and coaches would be involved in the new site. But that plan quietly disappeared too: instead Arsenal have promised to give