“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

Wikipedia, Egypt and the mystery of the Stoke Poges Naked Bicycle Angel

Egypt? It’s near Stoke Poges, a delightful village near Burnham Beeches and a lovely little cycle from London.

It was well worth the pilgrimage too, not only for the beautiful woodland or for the wonderfully displaced North African country, but also for a certain stained glass window in Stoke Poges church. I learnt of this window from Wikipedia when I was researching a talk I gave last year on the history of the bicycle. Apparently, there was a window of an angel, stark naked, riding a bicycle.

So I pedalled to the church, wheeled my respectful way down the winding path through the cemetery, leant my bike up against the porch and, full of anticipation, pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Now, I was expecting to see a huge window with a glorious winged angel dazzling the congregation with his dangling member straddling a Raleigh six-speed. So it was with increasing frustration that I circled the small church two, three times, without seeing anything remotely resembling an angel of heaven on a bike.

Then I found this:

This is a small inset picture in a window installed to celebrate the lives lost in World War II. And it’s not so much an angel as a cherub, I’d say. Far from being glorious, it seems a little inappropriate. I’d like to know the thought process behind this one.

We want something nice to remember the 450,000 souls who died in the most horrific war in human history…

I know – a cherub on a hobby-horse blowing a trumpet!

Whatever the thinking behind it was, one thing is certain: Wikipedia is wrong.

What?

This is what Wikipedia originally told me about the window:

There are several early but unverifiable claims for the invention of bicycle-like machines. The earliest comes from an illustration found in a church window in Stoke Poges, installed in the 16th century, showing a naked angel on a bicycle-like device…*

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Second World War was a twentieth century event.

This is a valuable lesson I think.
1. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes you do know better.
2. Check the facts for yourself. Go there. Verify the angel.

It reminds me of the British in Palestine, 1917-1948. A lot of government policy was set in London by people who had never been to Palestine (which then comprised the current territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Their policy formation was based on idealistic dreams, unrealistic ambitions and sectarian politics. They often ignored the advice of the people on the ground in Palestine.

The administrators, soldiers and civilians in Palestine itself, faced with the day-to-day troubles, were practical and realistic in their suggestions. But they were ignored by people who thought they knew better – but who knew nothing.

I think this is one of the most important lessons of travel. How can I talk about Iran when I’ve never been there? Any talk that blew out of my mouth would be nothing more than so much hot air. How can I talk about a church window in Stoke Poges when I’ve never been there?

The more I travel, the more wary I become of talking about places I haven’t been – or of listening to other people who haven’t been either, no matter what their professional qualifications are. You can find the inaccurate angel-window story repeated endlessly across the internet, mindlessly regurgitated by people who’ve never been to Stoke Poges.

So I urge you: verify the angel!


* There are a couple of things here. Apparently the glass of the window was recycled (ho ho!) and a part of it has been dated to 1643. Which is the 17th century of course. The internet seems to be in some dispute about whether it is the bicycle part which is from 1643 or not. Either way, Wikipedia is wrong.

How to Impress the Future

Things worth doing are remembered. Ergo, to do something worth doing, we’ve got to impress the future. We were the Age of Enlightenment’s future – and we’re impressed. Grudgingly.

Hate the Enlightenment #1

The most annoying thing about the ‘marvellous achievements’ of the Enlightenment is that everything they did was so obvious!

Wait – what are you saying? Apples fall from trees? Well, no shit, Sherlock! Call it what you like, Sir Isaac – I say gravity-schmavity.

Freedom, democracy, reason, capitalism, scientific method, religious tolerance – yawn! It’s all a bit, well, obvious, isn’t it? I could have come up with trigonometry. It doesn’t take a genius, does it?

But, I suppose, if you look at it from the point of view of an English peasant living on a bog, the Age of Enlightenment must have looked like one spell-bindingly incredible feat after another.

Idiots.

Hate the Enlightenment #2

The other reason to hate the Enlightenment is that they’ve done everything already!

  • Shakespeare has already written all the plays worth watching (particularly annoying for me).
  • Mozart has already come up with all the decent tunes.
  • Gallileo has done astronomy and Newton’s got physics sewn up.

It’s not that I’m jealous, but they had it so easy! (see Hate the Enlightenment #1)

The only things left for us to do are bloody impossible – like describing a complete theory of the universe or coming up with a rhyme for orange*.

Impress the Future

But that’s the way it works – remember?

If I keep thinking like an English peasant living on a bog, everything new is always going to feel impossible.

Why is it that, if we look back in time, the achievements of the Enlightenment look inevitable; but when we peer into the future, everything new suddenly looks impossible?

If only we could look into our future from the perspective of a still more distant future, so that it looks easy, obvious – and amazing.

What of our generation’s achievements will our ancestors look back at in two hundred years and be jealous of?

We can never know for sure, but we’ll never impress them if we stay stuck in our own mental bogs.


* sporange?

Secular Jews, Religious Jews and Arabs: The Zero-Sum Game of Israeli Multiculturalism

This is a review of a talk given by Professor Menachem Mautner, a political and legal theorist from Tel Aviv University, on the 1st of February 2010 at Oriel College, Oxford. Again, apologies for the lateness!

I would like to make quite clear at the beginning of this review that Professor Mautner discusses Israel exclusively. He does not refer to the problems between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His concern is the problems facing Israeli society.

Israel’s Multicultural Society

Since the 1970s and the end of Labour’s hegemony in Israeli politics, Israel has been a multicultural society. But there is a war of cultures going on, the society is divided in two ways.

The War of Cultures 1: Secular Jews vs Religious Jews

Secular Jews, by which Professor Mautner meant “liberal western” Jews and religious Jews, by which he meant “traditional, Judaism” Jews have twice come close to civil war.

  1. First when settlers were withdrawn from Gaza and Northern Samaria. There was a lot of opposition to this move: 20,000 police and soldiers faced off against the settlers.
  2. Secondly, during the al-Aqsa intifada riots, in the face of retaliation by the Arabs.

The Jewish enlightenment of mid-19th century Germany marks the beginning of the opposition between the secular and the religious Jews. From the 1930s to the 1970s secular Jews, represented by the Labour movement, were in political hegemony. Their values were secular, democratic, modern and western.

By the end of the 1970s their power had waned and in 1977 there was a political turnabout in Israel and Labour lost control. Since 1977, there has only been 6 years that Labour were in hegemony. In the 1980s Labour institutions lost power and they have never properly recovered.

The War of Cultures 2: Jews vs Arabs

20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. By 2020 it will be 23%. Israel is clearly bi-national, but Jews deny it. The 1992 constitutional laws describe Israel as Jewish and democratic only. Arabs are allowed rights as individuals, but not collectively.

  • Arabs are excluded from significant political decisions on foreign policy and defence.
  • Israel doesn’t recognise any Arab holidays as public holidays.
  • There are separate cities, neighbourhoods, institutions, newspapers, schools etc. for Arabs in Israel.
  • In all indices – literacy, development, life expectancy, etc. – Arabs rank significantly lower than Jews in Israel.

This is an explosive mixture, Professor Mautner says, that could lead to a violent struggle.

But solutions are on the table. In 2006/07, Arab-Israeli intellectuals produced a policy paper, ‘Arab Vision,’ outlining a bi-national state like Switzerland, Belgium or Canada.

A Zero-Sum Game

But there is a connection between the two divides: it is a zero-sum game.

  • If the secular Jews move towards the traditional Jews, the Arabs suffer.
  • If the secular Jews move towards the Arabs, the traditional Jews will revolt.

And this situation will only get worse. The demographics are changing: 50% of school children are from either ultra-orthodox or Arab groups. Israeli society is becoming more polarised between the two groups at the extremes.

There is nothing unique in the Israeli multiculturalism. What is unique is that the pressure on the system comes from the centre, not the fringes. The problems faced by Israeli society are more like those faced by Turkey, Egypt or Algeria, not Canada or Belgium.

Although secular and liberal, the government funds ultra-orthodox groups who oppose these values. As a comparison, the Bob Jones University in the USA was stripped of its tax-free status by the Supreme Court because of their racist admissions policy. Israel will never do something like this, Professor Mautner says: it would cause a revolt by the religious Jews.

The Outlook

There are essentially two types of religious Jew in Israel: the ultra-orthodox Jews and the religious Zionists.

  • Ultra-orthodox Jews reject Western values and ideas including democracy and liberalism. They would support a theocracy which excludes women entirely.
  • Religious Zionists, on the other hand, take their ideas from the West as well as from tradition. They go to universities, the theatre and opera. They are democratic and have a religious feminism. They would object to a theocracy and would support liberal politics. They hold the key to the future character of Israel – but which way will they go?

Individualism represents a real danger for the multicultural state. It could polarise opinion and the common good will suffer. Professor Mautner proposes that republicanism could prevent this, if all citizens are able to deliberate over the common good with no exclusion. Labour republicanism has been strong, but it excludes the Arabs. Now it is weak and they can’t cultivate a shared idea of the common good.

Israel needs to actively pursue a Rawlsian liberal regime representing pluralism and tolerance, an inclusive liberalism, not a universal liberalism.

Specific Measures for the Future:

It contrast to some of the theorists I’ve heard speak, Professor Mautner outlined seven specific proposals to bind Israeli society closer together and to make the country a safer and more democratic state for all its citizens.

1. Establish a constitutional court

The constitutional law is currently developed by the Supreme Court, but this is now viewed as biased. A new constitutional court would be staffed by lawyers representing the major cultural groups so that it is no longer divisive.

2. Reshuffle the education system

Currently there are five types of schooling, secular, religious zionist, Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. They rarely intermix. Israel needs mixed schools, some already exist, but it needs more.

3. Change the 1992 laws about the nature of Israel

It is a nation for all Israelis, not just Jews. Israel should become a “Jewish, democratic and Israeli state.”

4. Include Arabs in national symbols

Including the flag and the national anthem.

5. Include Arabic as a national language

On a level with Hebrew.

6. Acknowledge the implications of multiculturalism

Respect for a people means a respect for their culture. Most Arabs are versed in Jewish culture, but not the other way around.

7. Use the example of 10th and 11th century Spain

Where the Jews enjoyed a golden age under Arab leaders.


It was a blessed relief to hear someone put forward concrete, rational proposals for the better integration of Arabs into Israeli society. It’s going to be a long and hard road to travel – overturning institutionalised racism, such as that outlined by Professor Mautner, does not happen overnight – but it will be worth it, for all concerned.