During this past week, I have been sorting through papers following the death of a much-loved friend, a skilful mechanical engineer whose handiwork passes in front of our eyes every day in the corner-lifting devices on marine containers that he helped design and standardise.
Turning over his detailed drawings, his neatly written specifications and carefully worked argumentation, I was struck by the exemplary level of professional skill he employed at every turn.
The excellence of his work was not rewarded on anything like the scale accorded to City bankers and financiers, and, in terms of the honours process, his name barely reached the foothills. The obscurity in which most engineers live their lives is characteristic of British culture and is damaging.
When I worked as a careers officer during the 1980s and 1990s, it was common to find able sixth-form students with the aptitude to become scientists and technologists deciding instead to read financial management or law, since it was readily understood that engineering “did not pay”, that the career “opportunities” were relatively poor.
One might encourage a few to take the first step of a university technology degree course, only for the big financial institutions, crowding round the doors, to sweep them up when they graduated. Their numeracy skills were valued but not their inspirational practical talent.
During the same period, British narrow-mindedness about the value of engineering ability was demonstrated in the ill-conceived project to turn polytechnics into universities. A more enlightened approach would have accorded the polytechnics a proud status in their own right.
Criticism of Israel or hatred of Jews?
I grew up with parents from the working-class East End who talked about “darkies” and “Yids”. I was first-generation university-educated, and my social mobility enlisted me to a professional class I naively expected to hold enlightened views. I was genuinely shocked the first time a neighbour did that thing they do when they drop their voice to say, “They’re Jewish, you know”, during an insulting anecdote.
My political opinions are formed on the basis of evidence. Howard Jacobson (Opinion, 18 February) is wrong to think that, if I condemn Israel for its tolerance of the “collateral damage” its bombing visits on Palestinian civilians, I am conflating racist prejudice with political opinion. I object to being called anti-Semitic for observing that soldiers of the Israeli volunteer citizen army aren’t as well-trained or well-commanded as they should be, when they shoot unarmed peace campaigners, or catch children in “crossfire”, deploying the powerful killing machines their US ally has helped to supply them with.
Like most of the people I know, I was horrified by the extent and nature of the killings (yes, the “slaughter”) in Gaza. None of us is anti-Jewish. If Israel were a multi-ethnic state, or if it were populated exclusively by Anglo-Saxons, or by Celts, or Arabs, or Tamils, our response would be exactly the same.
Israel is wealthy. It has a nuclear bomb, and a well-equipped army and air force. It has waged a war of invasion and conquest for 60 years against the indigenous Palestinians, who remain oppressed and humiliated, their homes demolished, their livelihoods destroyed, their crops uprooted. Israel has the greater power and therefore the ability and responsibility to make choices to enable all the people to live peacefully and with dignity.
The founders of modern Israel were fleeing post-Holocaust Europe, the scene of a dreadful atrocity. The Palestinians were not the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but they are paying the price.
Brighton, East Sussex
The usual pas de deux from the Israel bashers: Howard Jacobson writes an excellent piece observing that Jews are not allowed to ascribe any criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism, even when it blatantly transgresses the “red lines” set out in the most internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism (the European Union Monitoring Committee’s Working Definition) by, for example, making comparisons of Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto.
Caryl Churchill suggests Jews use the charge of “anti-Semitism” to try to stifle criticism of Israel. This Pavlovian gambit is so well known that it even has a generic name, the “Livingstone Manoeuvre”. It belittles the concern of Jews abut anti-Semitism in a way that those who employ it would not dream of belittling Muslim concerns about Islamophobia.
Churchill claims that her play Seven Jewish Children shows the difficulty of explaining violence to children. I have seen it and that claim is disingenuous. It may be true of the first and second scenes (the Holocaust and post-Holocaust scenes, written, as Jacobson says, to establish the playwright’s “sympathetic bona fides”), but by the fourth scene the children are used as a device for conveying to the audience a distorted and derogatory view about their parents. Not a single review of the play (not even the three positive ones) agrees with Churchill.
Finally, “chosen people” and the blood libel. The misuse of the biblical phrase to suggest that Jews have only rights and no obligations is a well-known device of anti-Semites. Churchill falls straight into the trap. As for the blood libel, suggesting that Jews react to the sight of a child covered in blood with relief that it is not their own child is indeed “outrageous”.
co-Vice Chairman of the Zionist Federation, LONDON N20
Caryl Churchill’s powerful, hermetic play, Seven Jewish Children, does indeed present its Jewish protagonists as uniformly supporting everything Israel has done to the Palestinians, and conflating it with Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.
Most of us have a more positive, objective view of our place in the world. A survey of Jewish identity in 2004, at the height of the Second Intifada, revealed a sizeable minority opposing Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, a smaller but still sizeable minority supporting them, and the biggest group being unsure. That was a normal spread of opinion on an intensely debated issue.
If Caryl Churchill believes her play represents most Jews, then that is due in no small measure to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Chief Rabbi, and the likes of Howard Jacobson. They, and others like them, relentlessly tell the world that Israel is in the right, whatever it does, regardless of the self-evident selfishness of its occupation and settlement of Palestinian land and the barbarity of its suppression of Palestinian resistance. Is it any wonder if some people think they speak for most Jews, and think less of all of us because of it?
Jews for Justice for Palestinians, London
Howard Jacobson’s belief that criticism of Israel’s murderous attack on the population of Gaza is anti-Semitic (Opinion, 18 February) is quaint. The death of some 400 children wasn’t a massacre, good gracious no; it was merely “fighting in Gaza”.
For the first time ever, major sections of the Jewish community, here and in the United States, dissociated themselves from what was happening in Gaza. The Zionist rally in support of Israel attracted less than a fifth of the numbers of previous rallies.
Instead of fantasising about anti-Semitism, Jacobson would do well to ask himself how it is that the Israeli Labour Party was beaten into fourth place by Yisrael Beteinu, which seeks to “transfer”’ Israel’s Arab inhabitants or force a McCarthyite “loyalty test” on them. Even he should recognise the antecedents of their favourite slogan: “Death to the Arabs”.
Pedalling a myth about bus lanes
Your “Cyclotherapy” columnist, James Daley, unleashed a silly diatribe against motorcyclists using London’s bus lanes (14 February). He says “quite why Boris (the Mayor) went ahead with this scheme is a mystery”.
Over the previous five years, Transport for London had spent a small fortune testing motorcycles and scooters in bus lanes and the unequivocal conclusion was that accidents to cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists were reduced by up to 40 per cent. The results also showed the test lanes did not encourage migration of cyclists to other routes; they mixed well. Mr Daley dismisses this five-year study as “evidence thin on the ground”.
I reckon Boris is trying to save a few casualties here, possibly even a few cyclists.
Snapshot of a horse in the air
In Tom Lubbock’s article “An Explosion in a Church” (Arts & Books, 13 February) he points out the difficulty artists had, before photography, in depicting the instantaneous. But, with the photographic studies by Eadward Muybridge, he is incorrect in stating they showed that a galloping horse never has all four hooves off the ground.
To quote from Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography, “The photographs … clearly showed that the feet of the horse were all off the ground at one phase of the gallop but, to the surprise of the world, only when the feet were bunched together under the belly. None of the horses photographed showed the ‘hobbyhorse attitude’ – front legs stretched forward and hind legs backward – so traditional in painting”.
Teaching a lesson to the extremists
Much like Dutch MP Geert Wilders who insists any Islam is evil Islam, the mullah insists any West is evil West. The British taught the extremists, on both sides, what goodness is. By denying Wilders entrance, the British sent a clear signal to the mullah that divisive and incendiary language cannot tarnish the West. At the same time, the growing anti-Islamic faction also learned that Islam and the West are compatible.
As an American, and an Ahmadi Muslim, I commend the British for this magnanimous gesture. Muslims and non-Muslims are indebted to you.
Sardar Anees Ahmad
Waterloo, New York, USA
The case of Jade Goody is very sad and one can sympathise with her for wanting to sell her story for the benefit of her children’s future. But I do think that the newpapers, magazines and the media who are going to make money from her story should donate some of that money to the various cancer charities.
As the biographer of Sir Arnold Bax, I can resolve your correspondence concerning “incest and folkdancing” (letters, 16 February). The “sympathetic Scot” Bax mentioned in his autobiography, Farewell, My Youth, as first making this remark, was actually Guy Warrack (1900-86), then the principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra. He told me so himself, and his son John Warrack has confirmed it to me. John adds, “Bax and he were good friends; he stayed with us in Edinburgh, and was my younger brother’s godfather”.
Buy now, and save
Logic suggests that this month’s unexpectedly low inflation figures are a blip unlikely to last more than a few weeks. Traders desperate for cashflow are selling off at cost old stock bought when the pound was high against the dollar and the euro. When this is gone, imported food and consumer goods will cost nearly half as much again because of the devaluation of sterling. If you plan to buy something imported, and you can afford it, buy now because things will not be as cheap again in the foreseeable future.
Share the blame
As an Englishman who has lived most of his life in Scotland, I have never experienced “the almost pathological suspicion” which, Dominic Lawson asserts, “a very large number of Scots have of the English”(Opinion, 17 February). With most of my fellow countrymen, I thought the banking crisis was caused by irresponsible capitalists poorly controlled by politicians from all parts of the UK and beyond. Now we have been put right by Mr Lawson. At least he’s not blaming the Jews, the blacks, gay or disabled people, just the Scots. So that’s all right then.
Brian Cooke (letters, 19 February) is mystified by the word “dang”. It’s actually one of the euphemisms used by overly-Christian folk in the US for the too forthright “damn”, just as “Gee” is a safe substitute for God. Can’t help him on the temperature of dang/damn, though, unless it’s related to the level of heat in Heck.
Dr Richard Carter
London SW15Reuse content