What U.S. Jews Don’t Get About European Anti-Semitism

My inbox is giving me a queasy sensation of déjà vu. It’s filling up with anguished claims that British schools are banning the teaching of Hebrew. As it happens, no such thing has occurred. The government has simply proposed that elementary schools be required to teach one of a list of seven officially recommended languages: French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, ancient Latin, or Greek. Hebrew is no more about to be banned than is Arabic or Russian. Jewish schools will still be able to teach Hebrew. It’s just that, if the move goes ahead, they’ll also have to teach French, Spanish, or one of the other approved seven languages.


Senior minister accuses No 10 of smearing Hazel Blears

Opponents of Gordon Brown claim Downing Street smeared the communities secretary after she quit this morning

Published on the Guardian website

Don’t knock it – Sugar’s a winner for our times

With its unashamed pursuit of money and multi-ethnic contestants, The Apprentice holds up a mirror to our city today

Published in the Evening Standard

So the Londoner won. Last night Alan Sugar, the self-described ?bloody old fool,? chose Simon Ambrose, native son of Hampstead Garden Suburb, to serve as his newest Apprentice. If the cold calculus of the balance sheet alone had been decisive, Sugar would doubtless have plumped for the super-capable, steadily competent Kristina Grimes. Instead sentiment got the better of him: he liked Simon?s quirkiness, his risk-taking, the gleam in his eye. For three consecutive series, Sugar has been looking for a surrogate son, someone he could groom as a possible successor. Last night,

the fondness of his smile suggested he had got his man.

Of course the real winner is the BBC, which has a certified hit on its hands. Summer after summer, the Apprentice has risen above the rest of the reality TV chaff and emerged as genuine water-cooler television: these last weeks, I heard it talked about everywhere. Even the spin-off show, The Apprentice: You?re Fired over on BBC Two, acquired a cult following.

Last week?s shock withdrawal of pantomime villain Katie Hopkins was

debated in pubs and offices, on online talkboards and radio phone-ins and across the quality press. The freakshow ringmasters of Channel 4?s Big Brother can only look on with envy.

Yes, I know the criticisms. Sir Alan ? forget the new egalitarianism,

Sugar is only ever known by his full title ? is far from the business

genius claimed by the programme. The naysayers note that his Amstrad

operation is worth less than a tenth of the value it commanded at its

peak, its computers now remembered as a fond joke. Compared to the likes of Terry Leahy or Stuart Rose, Sugar is distinctly minor league. What?s more, add the carpers, Sugar?s confrontational way of doing business ? all raised voices and jabbed fingers ? went out with red braces and shoulder pads, if it was ever in. The true titans of business are softly-spoken consensus builders, their work a world away from the adrenalin-filled shout-fests that make up the Apprentice.

All of which may be true, but none of which much matters. The show is

great television, Sugar a natural TV star. And it has a more enduring

value too. For the Apprentice provides an irresistible snapshot of this city at this time, capturing the London of 2007 as precisely as any novel or movie.

There are the pictures for a start. Those aerial shots of the capital, the camera swooping over the river, lingering by Canary Wharf and the Eye, either in the first sunlight of early morning or in the shimmering glitter of evening, reveal a London that has never looked lovelier. You don?t see the sweaty crush on the Tube or the choking fumes of the bus, just the gleaming sparkle of a city in its 21st century pomp.

That fits the tenor of a programme that is unashamedly Londoncentric.

While other parts of the BBC?s output have to apologise for featuring the capital so centrally, always conscious of the obligation to include the regions, the Apprentice begins and ends in London. Sugar sets his tasks in London Zoo or at the top of the Telecom tower; the teams sell coffee in Islington or art in Cork Street. The loser is shown leaving, suitcase in hand, in the back of a black cab.

Last night?s show was yet another extended tourist promotion for this

city. Sir Alan asked Kristina and Simon to design a replacement for the IBM building he owns on the South Bank. He wanted a new ?landmark for London.? Research took the duelling rivals to the London Aquarium, the Science Museum and Kew Gardens. They presented their designs to property?s movers and shakers at the old Billingsgate Market ? now, like so many old working areas of London, swanked up as a party venue and arts space.

But in the Apprentice the capital is never just the backdrop. The unstated message of the show is that making it in Britain means coming to London. Mancunian Adam or Scottish Ghazal all compete for a job in the big city: indeed, Katie came unstuck last week over her inability to relocate from Exeter. Sugar told her straight: ?I ain?t got no businesses in Devon.? It was London ? or nothing.

The faces arrayed around Sugar?s boardroom table reflect something real about the capital too. They are as diverse a bunch as you would find on any morning train. In the first series, the final four consisted of black Londoner (and eventual winner) Tim Campbell, Asian motormouth Saira Khan alongside candidates with Italian and Jewish roots. Syed Ahmed was a stand-out performer last year, while Tre Azam ? with a line in four-letter invective that gloriously defied his Islamist-style beard ? won hearts this year.

Better still, this diversity is taken for granted on the Apprentice, as it is in much of today?s London. The contestants abuse each other routinely, but not (as far as we?ve seen) on grounds of race or sexuality. Here, too, Sugar deserves credit. When each week he weighed up which of the three luckless souls before him should be fired, he gave no hint of bias: white candidates lost out to black, and vice versa. As an employer, Alan Sugar appeared as colour-blind as every modern London boss should be. (Though after he grilled Katie on her childcare arrangements last week, but not Tre on his, the same cannot be said of Sugar?s attitude to gender.)

Above all, the Apprentice deals in the golden substance that makes

London?s wheels go around: money. The weekly tasks have only one aim, to make the most cash. That suits a city which, even New York concedes, is fast becoming the world?s financial capital. London is throbbing with money just now ? and the Apprentice captures the moment exquisitely.

In Alan Sugar, London has found its embodiment. The Hackney boy made good, the Jewish market trader whose rags have turned to riches, his is the quintessential London tale. That his fortune is no longer derived from manufacturing but from property could be a parable of the London economy of 2007.

Now Sugar has a new sidekick, in the form of Simon Ambrose. Lets hope his apprenticeship works out. But lets also hope he is under no illusions. Simon was not the best thing about the Apprentice. Nor, even, was his new boss. Make no mistake: London is the star of this show.

This foolish boycott will solve nothing

Published in the Evening Standard

Lord knows, I’ve had my differences with Ken Livingstone, especially when it comes to the politics of the Middle East – but there’s one issue he’s got absolutely right. Last week, to the enormous surprise of much of London’s Jewish community, the mayor agreed with them – and came out against an academic boycott of Israel.

Unfortunately, his intervention came too late. The very next day, Britain’s University and College Union voted to promote the call for a boycott. Now, I was raised to be respectful of teachers and positively reverential towards academics. Which is why it pains me to say that this decision is almost laughably stupid. But it is. If a student had come up with it, he would find it daubed with a thick red line, from top to bottom.

First, it lacks all logical consistency. Let’s say you accept, as I do, that Israel is wrong to be occupying the territories it won in the Six Day war, whose 40th anniversary is being marked this week. Let’s say that that is your reason for boycotting Israel. Then why no boycott of China for its occupation of Tibet? Or of Russia for its brutal war against the Chechens? Or of Sudan, for its killing of hundreds of thousands in Darfur, a murderous persecution described by the US as genocide?

If it’s the ill-treatment of Palestinians in particular that concerns you, then why no boycott of Lebanon, whose army continues to pound the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, killing civilians daily? True, the Lebanese government is not a military occupier. But if occupation is the crime that warrants international ostracism, then why no boycott of American universities? After all, the US is occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. So, for that matter, is Britain. Why do the good men and women of UCU not speak out, by boycotting, say, Oxford, Cambridge and London universities? Why do they not boycott themselves?

Maybe academic freedom is their chief concern. That would make sense, given that they’re academics. But if that was the issue, there would surely be boycotts of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to name just a few places where intellectual freedom remains a fond dream. (The awkward truth is that the freest place in the Middle East for an Arab scholar is Israel.) Yet the UCU sees no “moral implications,” to use the language of last week’s resolution, in institutional ties with Damascus, Cairo or Tehran. Only Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

For some reason, the activists pushing for this move believe Israelis should be placed in a unique category of untouchability. Never mind the 655,000 the US and Britain have, on one estimate, killed in Iraq. Never mind the two million displaced in Darfur. Never mind the closed, repressive societies of the Middle East. The Israelis are a people apart, one that must be shunned.

But let’s be charitable and forgive the boycotters their inconsistency. Surely any tactic, even an inconsistent one, is forgivable if it does some good. This, though, is where the combined geniuses of the UCU have really blundered. For a boycott will be hugely counter-productive.

For one thing, Israeli academics are disproportionately represented in Israel’s “peace camp.” The UCU will be boycotting the very people who have done most to draw the Israeli public’s attention to the folly of the occupation, to the very people working to bring an end to this desperate conflict. By their actions, the UCU will embolden the Israeli right who will be able to say, ‘Look, the world hates and isolates us: this is exactly why we have to be militarily strong.’

The second error is more subtle. One of the few things that might make Israel change course would be a shift in diaspora Jewish opinion: those campaigning for Palestinian rights and an end to the occupation need to win over Jewish allies. Yet no tactic is more likely to alienate Jews than a boycott. That’s because the very word has deep and painful resonances for Jews: a boycott of Jewish business was one of the Nazis’ opening moves. No one is equating the current plan with that. But of all the tactics to have chosen, a boycott is the very dumbest one.

Advocates say there’s nothing to worry about, this will be a boycott of institutions, not individuals – a necessary move because no Israeli institution has ever taken a stand against the occupation. This, too, is numb-skulled. When do academic institutions ever take a collective stand against anything? Did Imperial College declare itself against the Iraq war? What was the British Museum’s view of UK policy in Northern Ireland? Of course there was no such thing. Institutions of learning don’t take a stand; individuals do.

Which is why it will be individuals who are ostracised by this action. When you boycott the Hebrew University, you’re not boycotting bricks and mortar but the men and women who teach there. The “institutional” talk is just a ruse designed to make this boycott more palatable. It will still end in the shunning of individuals.

And why? Simply because they are citizens of the wrong country, born with the wrong nationality. In 2003 the Linguistic Society of America declared itself against blacklisting scholars simply because of the actions of their governments. “Such boycotts violate the principle of free scientific interaction and cooperation, and they constitute arbitrary and selective applications of collective punishment.” They also amount to a pretty crass form or discrimination: you can’t come to this conference, because you’ve got the wrong colour passport.

Oh, but none of these arguments stopped the boycott of South Africa, say the pro-blacklisters. Except these situations are completely different. In South Africa, the majority of the people were denied a vote in the state in which they lived. Israelis and Palestinians are, by contrast, two peoples locked in a national conflict which will be resolved only when each has its own, secure state.

Ken Livingstone is right: to launch a boycott of Israel now would hurt, not help the search for the peace that might end this Middle East tragedy. And that, when all the posturing is put to one side, is all that should matter.