Don’t we want to save the planet?

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

We?re in the season of the overflow service, when banqueting suites, conference centres and even the odd church hall are suddenly transformed into temporary synagogues. The congregation of Beehive Lane in Ilford used to go one better, gathering for High Holyday services in their local Odeon.

Which gives me an idea. What if our rabbis decreed a trip to the cinema to be as compulsory as attendance in shul for Kol Nidre? Not to see just any film, but one in particular. It?s won rave reviews, broken box office records in the US and been dubbed the scariest movie of the year.

It is ?An Inconvenient Truth,? the documentary which shows Al Gore, the former Vice-President ? and winner of the popular vote in the 2000 election ? deliver his travelling, illustrated lecture on climate change.

Since Gore is a notorious bore and lectures don?t usually make great cinema, ?An Inconvenient Truth? should be one long snooze. Instead, it is one of the most gripping, most affecting films you?ll ever see. Calmly and clearly, Gore, aided by some hi-tech visuals, walks you through the ABC of global warming. He explains what it is, what?s causing it and what threat it poses to the entire human race.

He takes no knowledge for granted and makes his case in the simplest possible way, often using ?before? and ?after? photographs to show how our world is changing, thanks to the carbon dioxide we emit every time we drive a car, fly a plane or leave the TV set on stand-by.

He shows glaciers that have disappeared, icebergs that are melting, polar bears that are drowning. Ani-mated maps show what this will mean for humanity, as sea levels rise and whole swathes of land, from Shanghai to Manhattan, disappear under water.

Long-time environmentalists say that Gore isn?t saying anything new, but that?s not the point. The power of the film is that it takes facts and arguments you may well have heard and even understood in your head ? and lodges them somewhere in your gut, in the place where political convictions are formed. Even if you think you know about climate change, after 100 minutes of this film you will be determined to do something about it.

Gore himself says that this ?planetary emergency? is so great it is not a political issue at all, but a moral one. He could have gone further and called it a religious one. For if you believe that God created the heaven and the earth, then surely it can?t be right to trash His creation. And, make no mistake, that is what we are doing, stripping out all we can of the planet?s resources, burning them up and cooking the earth as a result. (Climate change deniers will cast doubt on all this, of course, but pay close attention to the contrary evidence they claim: almost all of it will come from various ?institutes? and ?foundations? subsidised by the energy industry.) The religious obligation is, surely, to treasure and look after God?s creation: instead we are ravaging it.

You would imagine this would outrage Jews; the more faithful, the greater the anger. And yet I see no such correlation. I have heard a good number of sermons in my time: hundreds on Israel, dozens on antisemitism, and plenty on the price of kosher food. But I cannot remember one urging the congregation to fly less, to walk or cycle instead of taking the car, to turn off the heating in rooms that aren?t used.

Or pushing those who run businesses to wonder if they really need office lights on all night, or computers set to ?sleep? but still gobbling up valuable energy. Or asking all of us whether we really need to buy so much stuff, to keep on consuming, depleting the assets of the earth. No doubt some rabbis have spoken on these lines, but they are the exceptions.

Nowhere is this gap between what should surely be a Jewish obligation and reality clearer than in Israel. Plenty of Israelis will go on endlessly about the sanctity of the land, insisting it was entrusted directly by God to the Jewish people. Yet how do they treat this sacred inheritance? For an answer, look just outside Tel Aviv to the man-made mountain at Hiriya: it is a rubbish dump, so large it has become a topological feature. Or note the fate of Nitzanim, a nature reserve that served as home to endangered turtles and gazelle, but was earmarked for development to make room for ex-settlers from the Gaza strip.

Green activists say we are living as if there were three planets, instead of only one. It is an inconvenient truth but at this time of atonement we should face it and do all we can to repair our gasping world.

We mustn’t let the hatemongers win

Published in the Evening Standard 21 September 2006

It’s unusual to watch a contest and feel unsympathetic to both sides, but that was the sensation yesterday, watching John Reid do battle with a couple of Islamist extremists in Leytonstone.

The first impulse was to loathe the barrackers, led by Abu Izzadeen, the extremist formerly known as Trevor Brooks. Those who have traced the wilder shores of Islamist radicalism in Britain have seen Brooks before: as the spokesman for the recently outlawed al-Ghurabaa group, he has form. Which makes you wonder how, as George Galloway put it, he was able to get within “punching distance” of the Home Secretary. (Nice, incidentally, to hear the member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who recently declared that the assassination of Tony Blair would be “morally justified”, voicing his concern for the security of government ministers.)

Still, there he was, relatively moderate by his standards, branding Reid a “tyrant”, an “enemy of Islam” and accusing Britain of “state terrorism.” Usually Abu Izzadeen is more to the point, telling BBC Newsnight last year that the July 7 bombers were “completely praiseworthy” and confessing his own ambition to die as a suicide bomber.

Indeed, Abu Izzadeen and the handful of activists like him are almost too bad to be true. They emerge at regular intervals, apparently bent on confirming every one of the worst accusations levelled against Muslims. So, in protest at the cartoons of Muhammad, they gathered outside the Danish Embassy carrying placards that declared: “Behead those who mock Islam” and “Europe you’ll pay, Bin Laden is on his way.” One can only imagine the reaction of moderate Muslims as they saw those slogans, sinking their heads into their hands and sighing that their worst enemies could not have produced a more damaging image.

The Islamist ultras were up to the same trick a few days ago, this time stirred by the Pope’s inept digging up of a 14 century quotation which accused the Prophet Muhammad of introducing into the world “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Right on cue, as if to vindicate the Pope’s incendiary point, the lunatic Islamist fringe were off torching churches in the West Bank and killing a nun in Somalia. Meanwhile, their admirers in London headed to Westminster Cathedral with some new slogans, “Islam will conquer Rome” and “Jesus is the slave of Allah” among them.

All of this behaviour adds up to British Muslims’ worst nightmare. The Islamist hardcore seems determined to bear out the Islamophobic claim that Muslims are prone to violence and intolerance. Take this example. Islamophobes argue that Muslims have no place in a western democracy. It’s an indefensible statement – yet during the 2005 general election campaign, these fringe sects broke up both a Muslim Council of Britain event aimed at urging Muslims to vote and a Galloway rally in the East End, shouting that any Muslim who dared mark a ballot paper would be facing a “death sentence.” It was, they insisted, unIslamic to vote – thereby endorsing the bigots who claim Muslims have no place in a democracy.

Abu Izzadeen and those like him do Muslims’ enemies’ work for them: they are propaganda in human form, walking advertisements for Islamophobia. And my own trade should admit its share of responsibility in this regard: because the hatemongers make gripping television and great copy, we give them far more publicity than their numbers deserve. (Yesterday’s performance was another example, an obvious stunt which garnered huge coverage.) The result is the inflation of these marginal figures, leaving an impression that they are somehow representative of the British Muslim mainstream. They are not.

So in a contest between them and almost anyone else, I’d want them to lose every time. And yet I could hardly cheer on John Reid yesterday. When faced with the desperately important challenge of healing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in this city and beyond, I fear the Home Secretary is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

He deserved credit for delivering his speech to a Muslim audience rather than to a cosy thinktank in Westminster. That always risked a hostile reaction, and so it proved. But he made some bad errors.

First, he should have tackled head-on the anger many Muslim Londoners feel over the heavy-handed arrests of innocent men, most notably at the Forest Gate raid in June. As Home Secretary, he carries some political responsibility for the police and it shouldn’t have taken a heckler to raise the subject. He has a solid defence to make – that the police have to act on serious warnings, even those that turn out to be false alarms – and he should have made it.

Second, it strains credulity for Reid to tell Muslims that one potential cause of terrorism is insufficient vigilance by parents, failing to spot “the tell-tale signs”, while refusing any discussion of the factor identified again and again by British Muslims themselves – namely the role of British foreign policy in radicalising Muslim youth. The effect of his speech was to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of ordinary mums and dads, while dodging the government’s own responsibilities.

Of course he is right that the spread of violent jihadism is a grave challenge to British Islam and something which that community has to face up to and root out. But he is, after Tony Blair, one of the last people who can plausibly carry that message. His macho posturing after the August terror alert, warning that Britain faced its greatest threat since the second world war, did the terrorists’ work for them, dignifying their murderous crimes with the status of acts of war. Instead of calming this conflict down, he has talked it up.

All of which makes yesterday’s scene an odd one: Islamist radicals who help the Islamophobes, pitted against a Home Secretary who ends up boosting the extremists. Two sides at each other’s throats, and not one of them you could cheer.

Spare us Citizen Ken’s dodgy new comrades

Published in the Evening Standard September 14 2006

You've got to hand it to Ken. No one can do a political stunt better. Tony Blair used to command his aides to find an 'eye-catching initiative,' but he was asking the wrong people. He should have called the mayor of London, who can dream up wheezes to make both your eyes pop out on storks.

The latest is the 'oil for brooms' deal, still in negotiation, with the lion of Latin America, the new Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez. Under the plan, Londoners would benefit from Venezuela's cheap oil while the poor of Caracas would be treated to London's wisdom on everything from rubbish collection to CCTV. The deal's not done yet, but it should be signed and sealed by Christmas.

It's not your usual international transaction. For one thing, there won't be any physical transfer of oil - no pipeline from Latin America to the Thames - but rather a trade-off, whereby regular UK suppliers would provide the black stuff to London, and then receive the equivalent amount from the state energy company of Venezuela. Ken would use this cheaper fuel on London's buses, especially, we're told, those that run in the capital's poorest areas. The saving might even allow him to give free Oyster cards to London's least affluent travellers, so insulating them from the coming wave of cash fare rises.

What's more, there need not be any transfer of money. This will be a

barter arrangement: for every barrel Chavez gives us, we'll give him a masterclass in social housing or wheelie bins. That's not new to Chavez: he already runs an oil-for-doctors swap with Cuba.

But what makes the London arrangement so unusual is that Venezuela's

partner will not be another nation-state, but a city. Ken Livingstone used to be mocked for trying to run his own foreign policy at the Greater London Council: how silly, they chortled, to declare the capital a nuclear free zone! Yet here he is, two decades later, signing a bilateral agreement with a foreign government.

Should we welcome it? The Tories are up in arms, suddenly concerned with the plight of the Venezuelan poor who, they say, will lose out if their most crucial national asset is "siphoned off" and given away cheap to a prosperous city like London. The Lib Dems insist we should be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, not buying them at knockdown prices from Latin America. To which Ken replies that, since, for the moment, London's buses run on petrol, he's right to seek the lowest possible prices. Anyway, the mayor is no slouch on green matters. From the congestion charge on, he is doing more than most politicians to make a change.

Even so, there is something troubling about this move. First, Chavez may be a hero to the same international left which still lionises Fidel Castro, but his human rights record is deeply suspect. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Venezuelan government of gagging critics with the threat of prosecution, while Amnesty says Chavez has failed to end the decades-old brutality of the country's security forces. Many among the millions who signed a 2004 petition seeking Chavez's removal from office testify that they have since been denied employment and been subject to discrimination, their names etched onto 'la lista' - a dreaded enemies' list.

Ken's people are not too fazed by that, arguing that if Chavez really was the Latin American dictator of cliche, those who plotted an attempted coup against him in 2002 would no longer be at large but would have 'disappeared.' Besides, they say, he is doing "inspiring" work, bringing basic shelter, education and medicine to the most deprived shantytowns of Caracas.

All of which makes Chavez just the kind of guy whose face belongs on a Ken T-shirt. The Venezuelan would have appealed to the Ken of old, too - the Red Ken who saw himself as part of the great international socialist struggle. These days, the mayor has less opportunity to dress up in that outfit: he has to stay loyal to Tony Blair, he has to be a responsible chief executive, he has to win the trust of the City and the admiration of business, he has to keep in with the big property developers. All of which he has done remarkably well.

It's only on foreign policy that the mayor gets the chance to strike some of the old, leftist poses. I am sure that the folk at City Hall are sincere in their admiration for Chavez's social reforms - but they also love that El Presidente styles himself as George W Bush's great Latin nemesis. Standing next to him gives the Livingstone circle a rush of ideological blood.

The less forgivable example is the relationship with Sheikh Yusuf

al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric still hailed by Livingstone as the voice of moderate Islam - yet who recently added to his earlier positions condoning wife-beating and the stoning of homosexuals with a declaration that today's Jews bear responsibility for the death of Jesus. The mayor likes Qaradawi's tough line on Israel - the sheikh supports suicide bombings against Israeli civilians - so he ends up hugging a man who bends Islamic theology to take on the vilest tropes of Christian antisemitism.

Most of the time none of this seems to matter. Ken is doing a good job running London and most Londoners probably reckon that if he indulges himself on international politics every now and then, no real harm is done. But London will be under an unforgiving spotlight from now until 2012. And it won't help this city if, each time the mayor wins new friends in Caracas and Cairo, he alienates others somewhere else. Ken Livingstone needs to remember that he's not just a political partisan anymore, waving placards at a demo. He has to represent the people of this city, all of them - not just to a roster of his ideological heroes, but to the entire world.