Tuesday, January 30, 2007

That clash of civilisations

Carefully slipping under the radar of the British media was the result of the centrepiece debate at Mayor Ken's recent London conference on "How To Avoid The Clash Of Civilisations By Blaming The Jews" (ok, I may have amended the title slightly).

As reported in the last posting, Daniel Pipes, evil Zioneoconazi, faced up to the liberal democratic champion Livingstone on his own turf. The results were extraordinary and surprising - the Jews left the building alive, and the neutrals (as if there were any, how naive I am) will have come away enlightened.

Carol Gould wrote an excellent review at Front Page Magazine; some choice excerpts are below:

"...on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2007, I attended a conference hosted by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, entitled "World Civilization-Clash of Civilizations," to which the eminent American scholar Dr. Daniel Pipes had been invited. During the past year as I have read mind-boggling websites and blogs that refer to Dr Pipes as a ‘Zionist pervert’ and other delightful monikers, I wondered what would happen to this brave man, based in my hometown, Philadelphia, were he to cross the ocean...

...The Mayor rambled about Singapore, where he had traveled for the Olympic bid; he said it was immaculate and crime-free. Perhaps I lost his thread but he observed that one does not have to be a Muslim or Christian to be involved in free choice. The Mayor quoted John Stuart Mill, “live as you wish as long as you do not hurt anyone.” Inasmuch as the conference was held on the Jewish Sabbath, he might have exercised free choice and scheduled the main event with Pipes for a time convenient to observant Jews...

...He concluded by saying that the 'Islamophobic' media in the UK are trying to show that a “lower culture is taking over,” but in fact 90 percent of British Pakistani 16-year-old girls say their parents do expect them not to get married and have children, but instead to have careers. If the media are Islamophobic, how is it that Shami Chakrabarti, Abdel Bari Atwan, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, Dr Azzam 'I want to be a suicide bomber in Israel' Tammimi, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Ghada Karmi, Rageh Omaar, Asghar Bukhari, the aforementioned Salma Yaqoub, Halima Hussain, Faisal Bodi, Ahdaf Soueif, Tariq Ali, Tariq Ramadan and many others are an integral part of our daily media broadcasts and newsprint in Great Britain? ...

...After Mayor Livinsgtone came Daniel Pipes. His dignity and aplomb were breathtaking. He looked not unlike our British Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, and had the same sort of decorous style of delivery. One could hear a pin drop...

...The Mayor, Pipes noted, "wants everyone to get along" while "I want to defeat a terrible enemy." Multiculturalism, he continued, is breeding radical Islam -- and Britain is becoming a danger to the world: British terrorists have committed terrorist acts in fifteen countries. The biggest threat, from the Pipes perspective, is not from Iraq or Afghanistan but from London (I have been saying this for years and even my neocon friends do not grasp this scenario). What we are talking about is Islamic-flavored totalitarianism...

...Salma Yaqoub got off to a roaring start by announcing that terror attacks such as the July 7, 2005 tube and bus bombings in London were actually "Reprisal events."... Yaqoub said the American plan to re-map the Middle East is a “weapon of mass destruction” and that the neoconservatives pose the biggest threat to civilization...

...Leaning against the podium and addressing his comments in the direction of Salma Yaqoub, (Douglas) Murray asked, “Why are Muslims killing Muslims all over the world? Was Bertrand Delano, the Mayor of Paris not stabbed by a Muslim because he was gay?” Emphasizing the “backward norms of Islam,” Murray reminded the audience that Muslims are being killed by other Muslims if they do not submit to these norms.

A powerful moment unfolded when Murray asked, “How is multiculturalism going in Saudi Arabia?” - which was greeted with laughter and applause. “Are there any synagogues or churches there?” More applause and laughter.

Murray added that there will never, ever be sharia law here in Britain, but that some countries will have it, sadly. He berated the Mayor for inviting the suicide-bomber sympathiser Yusuf al Qaradawi to London and added that one should not roll out a red carpet for such radicals.

Facing Yaqoub, Murray informed the audience that she had been associated with the central Birmingham Mosque, which had featured so prominently in the Channel Four documentary about extremist Imams, including one who says the July 7th London bombings were not perpetrated by Muslims. Murray completed his assault on Yaqoub by reminding the audience that she had been a member of the ‘Yemen 7‘ and was a member of the Respect Party, which supports the insurgency in Iraq...

...Unbelievably, Mayor Livingstone asserted in the question period that Yusuf al Qaradawi was the “strongest force for modernization of Islam - he is the future of Islam.” This would be like saying a drug dealer is the best candidate to run a pharmaceuticals empire. Various hostile audience members asked questions about the ‘Clash of fundamentalisms’ and suggested that Pipes was an advocate of violence...

...In the second session, absurd allegations against the West that absolved Muslim terrorism proliferated. According to Salma Yaqoub, Bin Laden had no military hardware and he and his followers are “resisting legitimately.” She was furious that Douglas Murray had attacked the Muslim Council of Britain and said they were not a barrier to integration. Oh, really? Imagine how well Anglo Jewry is integrating with Muslims when their main governing body boycotts Holocaust Memorial Day...

...A featherweight young man named Denis Fernando, a gay Muslim, accused Rupert Murdoch of being at the helm of Islamophobia along with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the USA. I would love to ask Mr. Fernando how long he would last intact in a Muslim country. He could get a job with a Murdoch company tomorrow and visit the World Bank and IMF without anyone arresting and torturing him. Might he like to try visiting some Muslim countries while sitting on a panel as the leader of a gay and lesbian pressure group?...

...Pipes was trying to illustrate that there are people of Middle eastern descent who would not castrate men like Fernando for being gay. I would like to suggest to Fernando that Daniel Pipes would happily invite him to his home in Philadelphia but that the reverse would not happen in most Muslim countries, as the late Daniel Pearl found out...

...Dr. Abdul Bari made the point that his mosque lives happily next door to a synagogue. But when I was called on to ask why the radicals at my local mosque threatened to kill me, and why our local shopkeeper was antagonizing every resident of my neighborhood by refusing to stock goods that offend Islam, I was heckled and shouted down, and Lee Jasper muttered a joke at my expense...

...It was notable that Abdul Bari could not deal with an audience comment about Iqbal Sacranie’s support for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in a comment made at City Circle in July 06; he beat around the bush and seemed totally unconcerned when a Jewish audience member said synagogues and Jewish schools now live in fear since the rise of radical Islam in Britain. The man in the audience said that his family had been Londoners for several generations and had lived happily side by side with the non-Jewish community but now had to employ 24-hour security because of the rhetoric being used in many mosques and on UK- generated websites. So much for multiculturalism...

...A Jewish conference delegate, Adrian Cohen, said he had to arrive late because the Mayor had scheduled the day’s events on Shabbat but that he hoped that during the course of the day there had been a discourse on anti-Semitism inasmuch as Jewish schools have to be guarded 24/7. A man shouted, “If you had been here all day you’d have heard it discussed.”

So much for Ken Livingstone’s London. I left feeling offended, confused and deeply, deeply angry. Daniel Pipes was brave to have crossed the ocean to address this crowd, but it is doubtful he changed the minds of the pathologically hate-filled Israel and USA-bashers. In the corridors of the venue were stalls promoting Hugo Chavez and various causes that would fit into Ken Livingstone’s narrow Marxist-redux remit. Heaven forbid there might have been a stall to promote a Jewish charity.

What is so sad is that a mayor of a major world metropolis can so deeply hurt the souls of the Jewish community with his inexcusable pronouncements about their sole nation on earth by rejecting its creation, by bringing as his sidekick a known radical and by scheduling the event to effectively exclude participation by Jewish clergy, communal leaders and community members.

Shame on him."

Monday, January 29, 2007

National Unity

Some people have a very warped way of resolving internal conflict. If a virtual civil war is underway, what better way to unite the masses than by popping over the border and murdering some Jews? Best of all, why not fall over yourselves to take credit for it? And then claim you had been planning the whole thing for seven months...

Apparently it's all Israel's fault. It seems that we cleverly gave them Gaza and made them vote Hamas, specially so we could create a huge internecine battle, and now, in the spirit of national unity, they have struck back at their oppressors, and will do so again.

Meanwhile, we no doubt gave the Iranians some uranium-enrichment technology and flew Neturei Karta in on El Al, so we could manipulate world opinion a bit more. Why stop there? World exclusive on Freedmanslife - Jimmy Carter's latest book was ghost-written by Amos Oz.

In an upside-down world where Israel's reality seems totally inverse to the way everyone sees it and reacts to it, I think it is time for us to have our own form of national unity by demanding a new print run of one of Israel's finest clothing exports, and wearing the T-shirt to remind the world of what they can do if they don't like us:

Friday, January 26, 2007

Dr Pipes goes to London

From the ever-reliable Melanie Phillips...

Like bookends at the beginning and end of a week, two significant events occurred recently which, because they conflicted with the received unwisdom, were simply ignored by the mainstream media. The first, reported below, was the Dispatches TV documentary about Britain’s radical mosques. This provoked virtually no comment from either the media or politicians. The second was the encounter between the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the American scholar of Islam and director of the Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes, at a day-long event organised by the Mayor to discuss whether or not there was a clash of civilisations. Since this was an enormous left-fest on Livingstone’s home turf, with virtually no speakers other than Pipes and his seconder Douglas Murray (and elsewhere in this jamboree, Oliver Kamm) to put up any opposition, and with an audience overwhelmingly composed of people who thought that American neoconservatives had horns and a tail, it was assumed that Pipes would be disembowelled and his head stuck on a Greater London Authority turnpike. So great was this certainty that Pipes was advised of his terminal foolishness in accepting Livingstone’s deadly invitation.

How wrong everyone was. By all accounts, it was Livingstone and his seconder, Birmingham councillor Salma Yaqoob, who were eviscerated by Pipes and Murray. Pipes, with his gentle, scholarly demeanour and authoritative learning, would doubtless have disarmed his audience by his steadfast refusal to demonise Islam and all Muslims; not at all what would have been expected by those who had previously been fed the ludicrous propaganda caricature of the ‘Islamophobic’ anti-jihadi. Murray, meanwhile, went straight onto the attack and in a series of devastating blows apparently took apart both Livingstone and Yaqoob and brought the audience cheering to its feet.

The blogosphere has duly recorded this victory; you can see the links here on Pipes’s website, as well as his own take on the event. But although, as he writes, some 150 journalists attended the day, not a single word has been written about this in the British press. To read a mainstream press account by a British writer of this British event, you have to go to America. In the New York Sun, Daniel Johnson entertainingly notes:

The audience — eccentrically attired and coiffed, sporting cranky badges and sandals — were atypical political activists, and to judge from their questions, heavily inclined to the left. ‘This is liberal hell!’ muttered one New Yorker, contemplating the ‘Free Palestine’ and anti-racism stalls to which the mayor was giving house room. Yet the loudest cheers were not for him, but for the Daniel who had ventured into this lions’ den. As soon as the self-styled ‘young British mom’ in a hijab who was seconding the mayor, Salma Yaqoob, referred to the July 7 London suicide bombings as ‘reprisal events,’ I felt the audience shudder. There was another shudder when Ms. Yaqoob refused to utter the word ‘Israel.’

The victory by Pipes and Murray was surely a development of no small significance in these savage and degraded times. Here were two neoconservatives, both staunch anti-jihadis and robust supporters of Israel and America, making the case to thousands of progressives in a left-wing bear-pit that London’s very own version of Che Guevara was helping promote and endorse an evil ideology — and the audience, which might have been assumed to be viscerally anti-America, anti-neocon and anti-Israel duly turned not on them but on Livingstone.

This remarkable reaction provokes two reflections. First, the reason why Livingstone has got away with it for so long is simply because he has been allowed to do so. Thanks to a media that slavishly laps up his every utterance and largely supports his odious world-view, and opponents who tend to be intellectually spineless (think of the Tories, who can’t find one single candidate able enough to stand against him) he has never effectively been held to account. Faced with opponents who are formidably well-informed and intellectually fearless, he is promptly exposed for the empty ideologue that he is and duly crumples.

The second reflection is that, despite all the opprobrium that fashionable opinion generally heaps upon the Pipes/Murray view of the world, despite all the name-calling of ‘Islamophobe’ and all the rest of it, below the surface at least some people have clearly been listening hard and thinking for themselves. They have undoubtedly noted that the Islamists are not exactly committed to fundamental human rights, and that the alliance between sections of the left and those committed to the genocide of the Jews, the killing of homosexuals, the beating of women and the extinction of individual liberty is as loathsome as it is lethal. In other words, opinion has shifted. That’s why they cheered. And that is immensely cheering.

It was a defeat for the totalitarian left and a move towards sanity and decency. And that, no doubt, is why it has not been reported.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

TWAJ: Hillel's hypocrisy

Rabbi Hillel said that "every student matters; for there were many disaffiliated people who were attracted back to Judaism, and out of them sprang honest, committed and worthy Jews".

UJS-Hillel said that demographics and student needs had changed, and it was time to start closing down residential Hillel Houses under their control, and cease supporting local communities in keeping their own residences open (although most local Hillel committees had not felt much support anyway). What students need now, apparently, is to live in regular halls of residence, with some kosher self-catering options, and some kind of day drop-in centre on the side.

The problem is, halls of residence are getting more expensive as they add more services due to legislative pressures, student demand, and in some cases financial drivers that see university accommodation contracted out to the private sector, with more emphasis on providing premium services with richer margins (and, so the theory goes according to one estates manager I spoke to, inherently more responsible and civilized tenants).

At the same time, many traditional Jews of all financial means are looking to have more than just a kosher kitchenette on their corridor (besides which, I cannot imagine a "Jews-only" kitchen access policy), and impoverished Jews are priced out of much of this accommodation anyway. Additionally I have an uncomfortable feeling about a Jewish corridor or floor of a block, and so do many universities.

Halls of residence are also largely a first-year experience. Where do the students go for the remainder of their degrees? The really kashrut-concerned ones have to cluster together and rent somewhere which they kasher with care and the assistance of the local student chaplain (if they still have one). The remnant is often scattered far and wide, with individual and collective Jewish identity placed at similar risk of dilution.

Above all, my experience of Hillels on smaller campuses is that if they are well situated, properly maintained, and the right blend of residents can be found, they provide a unique atmosphere that cannot be replicated in a shul, day centre or student halls.

My view is that this is an organisation that has given up on the most difficult of its challenges, and is going for a facile, lowest common denominator, quantity-over-quality approach. It seems that much of the decision-making process taken by the central organisation on the future of Hillel Houses is now driven by the need to reduce the financial and time commitment needed to bring local Hillels into the 21st century. Closing them and having a drop-in day centre is not the solution.

Yes, it is difficult to support residential Hillels, but most communities fund and run them, and need minimal interference from the centre, except for guidance on the professional side of operating accommodation, such as on the new HMO requirements.

In fact, one of the most important reasons for having a residential Hillel House nowadays is the fact that they are the only student houses that are not run for profit. Even university halls of residence are now often required to pay their way, and student rents everywhere have risen in line with house prices. This puts the average room cost of a Hillel at substantially below the rest of the market.

It therefore seems to be the height of irony that in a flash of PR, UJS-Hillel shows off its spangly new day centres in places like Bristol, whilst quietly allowing the local community to take the beautiful residential Hillel for use as their new shul, leaves students to the vagaries of an expensive rental market, and then is quoted in articles in the JC:

UJS-Hillel operations director Gerry Lucas stressed that "not all students conform to the Jewish stereotype. You don't know what goes on behind closed doors." ... UJS-Hillel has distributed £129,000 in grants to some 150 students over the last decade.

Well, it depends which closed doors. Does Gerry mean the closed doors of Edinburgh Hillel, where despite a growing jsoc and a stunning level of subsidised accommodation right next to the shul, university halls or residence and the city centre, the community shut it down due to lack of use?

But why is this central Hillel's responsibility? Well, Hillels are advertised only by the central organisation, so if they are not promoted by UJS-Hillel, few first year students will go there. And if the local communities lack the expertise to run accommodation and the central body is not providing it, and hence are failing to attract a minimum number of residents, they will cut their losses and use the building for other things (in Edinburgh, it is now the rabbi's house).

Combine that with longstanding UJS/UJIA policy that - intended or not - is starving small jsocs of resources and assistance, and drives prospective students to a handful of larger campuses (Jewish-wise, that is). The regional Hillels - where they are most needed as a focal point, given the lack of sheer and consistent jsoc numbers - do not stand a chance.

This is a vicious circle - first kill off demand, then close them down due to an apparent lack of demand, or vice versa. Save the local community the bother, further achieve the aim of pushing students into a decreasing number of campus choices, where you can ensure your statistics are hit in terms of investment per capita per event attended, or whatever the latest metric is.

Then get your organisation some good coverage in the JC by coming over all concerned about Jewish student poverty. £129,000 to 150 students over 10 years is an average of 15 grants of under £1,000 each year. Compare this to the unheralded £1m subsidy of residential Hillel Houses in the same period (see footnote).

Surely, the policy should be to improve local Hillel accommodation and focus resources on getting an appropriate means-testing system in place, to help Jewish students from less financially comfortable backgrounds in a way that is not demeaning and encourages their fullest participation in student life, by giving them priority access to places in residential Hillels?

But instead, we find for example that at Nottingham, where the residential Hillel has been closed and a non-residential formula applied, "the talented young interior designer Adam Share has evolved a 'feel' to the centre which combines the practical with the imaginative to create a dynamic Jewish space that is warm and welcoming. On the accommodation front, UJS Hillel has secured a number of kosher flats in the impressive Riverside development which are managed on our behalf by Unite plc."

A visit the Unite website for Riverside finds that just to get in the door and pay on a monthly basis, you need £700, and there's a surcharge for what we now think of as basics like internet connection. They carefully don't tell you what the weekly rental is, but agencies are listing it with an average room price over £100 per week.

It seems to be abundantly clear that the priorities of UJS-Hillel are nowhere near those of their claimed market. The lack of authentic and affordable kosher accommodation is penalising less well-off and/or more orthodox students unless they want to choose from half a dozen universities which retain such facilities, or are happy to stretch themselves financially or religiously, to live in expensive student halls and try to create a kosher Jewish environment in the heart of the most treif and irreligious part of campus.
Most importantly, I believe that the vibrant and warm atmosphere of a good Hillel House is created naturally, given the right encouragement, mostly because it is a Hillel Home. Take that away, and you have a glorified scout hut.

Why not retain the accommodation where appropriate AND create the top-spec drop-in facilities? If the desire is to drive down risk, cost and time whilst maximising usage and atmosphere, centralise the organisation properly, and achieve economies of scale by running it as a non-profit residential property management and rental company with additional facilities for non-residents, using regional committees and communities as local agents.

It's not like our community is short of property entrepreneurs (Reuben, Tchenguiz, Kemsley, Sugar,

So we can conclude that "every student matters; for there were many disaffiliated people who we denied low-cost kosher accommodation to, but were attracted back to Judaism by our drop-in centres and disbursements of petty-change scholarships, and out of them - somehow - sprang honest, committed and worthy Jews."

Donations to found a network of Freedmanslife-Shamai residential student centres are now being accepted.

Footnote re the £1m local Hillel subsidy

Historically there were roughly 15 sites, with an average of say 10 rooms each, setting aside Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and London, which are much bigger and are almost halls of residence in their own right.

Assuming they achieve roughly 80% occupancy, that's 120 rooms per year, or 1200 student-rooms in the decade. On average, some basic research shows Hillel room rentals to be 20%-35% cheaper than the equivalent private sector alternative. Given that Hillels usually do not charge for summer voids, and often subsidise a range of amenities, the real cost may be even less.

With average student rent at £70 per week in the last 10 years outside London (and rising very fast indeed if you take the last 3-5 years only) according to published statistics, we shall assume regional Hillel rentals averaged £50 (according to AJ6 handbooks from the period and checking with former residents). Now assume that students pay 40 weeks' rent a year (in fact, most landlords charge for the whole year, with a slight discount in the summer, but usually not Hillel, so this is another hidden subsidy).

Multiply that all together, and we find that over 10 years, local Hillels have given an effective grant of nearly £1m to students.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Civil war in Iraq might suit the West's interests

In war and in politics unexamined axioms are always dangerous. That much we learnt from 2003. The axiom driving policy then was that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. On that unquestioned assumption, all the debate rested. And yet the axiom was false.

Today a similar unquestioned axiom is driving the debate about whether to stay in Iraq or leave. The axiom is that leaving Iraq would be a disaster for the security of the West. Here’s how President George Bush put it last Wednesday night: “To step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear the country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale. Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay in Iraq even longer and confront an enemy that is even more lethal.”

The fundamental question we have to ask right now is: how true is this? On the face of it the president has a very strong point. Withdrawal would indeed be likely to prompt a massive blood-letting in Iraq. It would give the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war far more oxygen and almost certainly provoke the Sunni powers, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to intervene financially or militarily in defence of Iraq’s outnumbered Sunni minority.

It would mean Iran emerging as a Shi’ite superpower in the region, with a strong presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon further intensifying the sense of Sunni beleaguerment and anger. We could see violence along the ancient Sunni-Shi’ite fault line sucking in much of the region, with its many fragile regimes. The consequences could be soaring oil prices, and any number of unforeseen disasters. After all, ask yourself: how many pleasant surprises come out of the Middle East? And yet the alternative — an indefinite entanglement with the pathologies of Iraq — prompts the question of whether there’s anything in this nightmare scenario that could be advantageous for the West. Is there a constructive argument for leaving? That’s the alternative scenario worth pondering.

Here’s how the counterintuitive argument would run. From 9/11 onwards the West’s war on terror has essentially followed the ideological narrative of Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden: this is a war between Islam and the West. President Bush’s dismal war strategy has only intensified that narrative, and that storyline is easily the most powerful recruitment device for Islamist terrorists in the West.

But if America withdrew from Iraq and a Sunni-Shi’ite war took off, the narrative of the long war would inevitably change. It would go from Islam versus the West to Islam versus itself. Escalating conflict in the Arab Muslim world would only be fully explicable in terms of the Sunni-Shi’ite split.

Instantly, Sunni Al-Qaeda would have a serious enemy close at hand: Shi’ite Iran. Think of this not as a “divide and conquer” strategy so much as a “divide and get out of the way” strategy. And with deft handling it could conceivably reap dividends in the long run.

Wars, after all, are not just about guns and military action. They are also about ideas and ideology. Long wars, especially, are won by those who gain control of the narrative. The West won the cold war when it became understood globally as a battle between totalitarianism and freedom. Defining the conflict that way helped a great deal towards winning it, and in retrospect the Helsinki accords which publicly endorsed that narrative were the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.

Similarly, redefining the war on terror as essentially the product of ancient feuds within Islam immediately shifts the argument onto terrain favourable to the West. For the first time in five years, it takes the narrative out of Bin Laden’s hands.

It also has the added benefit of being true. Al-Qaeda’s primary foes have always been Arab regimes not in accordance with extreme fundamentalist Wahhabist theology. But that theology is also full of contempt for those regarded by Al-Qaeda and most Sunnis as heretics: the Shi’ites of Iran.

We are learning in Iraq not to underestimate the power of this mutual hatred. The loathing of Muslims for other Muslims in the Middle East today is as deep as the loathing of Christians for other Christians once was in Europe. For Sunni versus Shi’ite, think Protestant versus Catholic. For 2007, think 1557.

Freud’s term for the passionate hating of people very like oneself — but different in some minor degree — was the “narcissism of small differences”. The West has a chance to exploit that Muslim narcissism for our own purposes — and for the sake of moderate Muslims across the world.

Or look at this another way: what is the greatest weakness of our enemy? The answer is fanaticism. It was fanaticism that prompted Bin Laden to attack on 9/11 before he had access to WMDs. He struck too soon because he couldn’t help himself. His rage forces him to make mistakes. The same went for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who alienated all of Jordan by bombing a wedding and who even prompted Bin Laden to worry about killing too many Muslims in Iraq.

Al-Qaeda hates the West but its main beef is with fellow Muslims who are heretics and traitors. The fanatics have certainly killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims over the years.

So why not let them hang themselves by this rope? By leaving Iraq, America could create a dangerous civil war that nonetheless has huge propaganda potential for changing the entire game of this larger war. It takes the West much further out of the picture and focuses the mind where it truly belongs: on current Muslim pathologies, paranoia and self-hatred. We can still prove our pro-reform bona fides by concentrating on Afghanistan, where we still have a chance to turn things around. And we also give Iran a big headache in grappling with the chaos on its border.

The other likely result of a Sunni-Shi’ite war is serious damage to the world’s oil supply. But isn’t that just what the West needs? Don’t we desperately need to wean ourselves off oil — and wouldn’t $100 a barrel be the best way to accelerate that? I’m not saying that leaving a civil war in Iraq is not dangerous. But so is staying. And the upsides of leaving haven’t been fully thought through yet, so let’s think them through, shall we? My fear is that Bush has not thought this through. There is no plan B because his rigid, incurious mind doesn’t have the dexterity to entertain it. The fundamentalist psyche doesn’t like paradox or nuance. But in dealing with this complex and metastasising problem, paradox and nuance and ruthless self-interest are indispensable.

This surely is the real conservative insight: that ideology must never trump reality, that new scenarios need new thinking, that in every crisis there is an opportunity. Currently the axiom that withdrawal is unthinkable is impeding our ability to think of new directions and new strategies. But we desperately need to think outside our comfort zone. Flexibility is not an enemy in wartime. In fact in this war our very survival may even depend on it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The return of Sideshow Bob

Caveat: what follows is just a work of fiction - any likeness or similarity that characters may have to persons living or dead is coincidence.

About a year ago, I met Sideshow Bob for the first time. Smart, sassy, smouldering, svelte, and dancefloor moves exactly on the fine line between classy-but-raw flamenco and pole-dancer. Able to discuss the offside rule and as carnivorous as a T.Rex, a fierce debater and passionate Zionist, excellent private school and red-brick university upbringing, pleasantly RP English tones, this one simply had everything. Oh, but there's always a catch - she smoked. Having said that, like Poison and Peanut before her, she managed to make the burning stick of death look pretty damn sexy.

Sideshow Bob was so deliciously and naturally stunning that she even looked amazing when I ran into her on the street one day, when she had a head cold, and was just out of bed to fetch some supplies for hot soup. Her hair was tied up with a rough band, no make-up in sight, and she was swaddled in some rather Freedmansdad jogging gear.

In short, this was my fantasy woman. Unfortunately she was every other guy's fantasy woman too (and probably a few borderline bi ladies might have been persuaded over the edge).

We all went out to a very beefy grill dinner and then on to a club by the sea. The night progressed and inhibitions fell; after a couple of false starts, I made my move. Using my unusually cat-like grace (think of the lion from the Wizard of Oz) on the dancefloor, I amused her greatly with some partly-camp hand-jive along to the BeeGees, then got into high-speed foot-tapping mode on the more modern numbers.

Desperate to get my sweaty paws somewhere on her awesomely toned frame, I cheekily asked her for a slow dance, despite the music becoming progressively more thumping. She looked puzzled and said that if only there was some slow music, she would oblige. After much begging of the DJ, who said he would be sacked for playing a real smoochie, he agreed to line up a club track with a 30 second slow intro...

As the dancefloor fell to a hush, I grabbed her hand and led her proudly to the centre of the room. Grasping her snakelike hips, I swept her frame across the floor like Gauguin painting a languid Polynesian onto canvas, only slightly less nude. Whispering sweet nothings in her ear, I breathed in the musky aroma of smoke, grill, sea salt and a fabulous perfume I didn't quite catch the name of, and, heart pounding, asked her whether she would kick me in the privates if I kissed her there and then.

She grinned at me with that cream and jam scone of a mouth, and held me ever closer. "You are so sweet, and very charming" she said, as the music grew louder and faster. As we tangoed to the side, she reached up to me with such elegance, and planted a series of kisses on my cheeks and neck. It was clearly a kiss-off, although artfully done. And then she was gone, with the faintest trace of that musk eddying in her wake and clinging to my clothes.

The next day, when I got to the airport for the flight home, I smelt that odour on my jumper, and wondered what might have been. Unable to contain my curiosity, I called on the pretext of finding out what that perfume had been, so I could buy it at the duty-free. Once again, she was polite and delightful but said she had just started seeing someone and that was why she was not interested.

I had my assumptions as to who that might be, and could not quite fathom why this innocent, gorgeous creature would want to get entangled with a cad like him. But alas, I was at the airport, wearing my size 38 jeans, catching my economy-class flight back to my parents' house to try and get my business to survive another year. And he was on his way to one of his two properties in Israel, in his designer slim black Levi's, returning from a day managing a huge VC fund. No contest.

After gradually snapping out of my one-itis during the following weeks, I arrived back in Israel three months later feeling quite ambivalent about Sideshow Bob. This feeling was compounded by her avoidance of the Bauhaus Walking Tour, which I invited her to join me on, having remembered her interest in the local architecture. But when I ran into her at a club, still looking every inch the embodiment of corporeal perfection, the old thrill came back, the trace of that musky perfume somehow still fresh on my shoulder.

I steadied myself and resolved that nothing was on the cards in the mutual undressing department, but that she was a fascinating and intelligent girl who might be a friend, either in Israel or London - depending on where either of us might settle in the end.

Once again, she was delightfully effervescent in her greeting and small-talk, but the barriers were clearly up. After that night, I realised she must have men falling at her feet all the time, and retaining even just the most well-meaning ones as friends seemed not to be on her agenda. As time passed, I forgot about her, lost touch.

Then Facebook intervened, I poked her, and she poked me back (terminology not physiology). We swapped brief updates on life (my business now on solid footing and an escape from Pinner imminent, she returned from Israel to start her law course). And before I knew it, she was on my distribution list for kedgeree brunches, strolls on Hampstead Heath and Friday night dinners at Ruppin.

Still, she seemed unable to maintain anything other than a distant froideur. Why? I would consider that I had opened the "Friendzone" to her, and the response had been muted at best. Miffed, I put her firmly to the back of my mind - it wasn't like I would be seeing her on my current Israel trip, having proposed various social activities (safely in the company of Freedmansister and Bison) and had no response.

But of course as luck would have it, I ran into her at a rich man's private party. Thinking I needed to make it quite clear that my Friendzone was a good second best to her Erogenouszone, I bounced up (in my now size 36 jeans), made some small-talk, and introduced her to Freedmansister, who is terribly important in the world of the senior judiciary. I couldn't help noticing that the parfum du jour seemed to come from a box of Marlboros, and that the smile seemed just slightly more wan.

Still, Freedmansister, playing wing-woman with some panache, asked if she should make herself scarce so I could try my luck, but tiredness (or should I say ennui) had kicked in, and besides, she was already surrounded by men willing to chance their arm for her, as well as a thick swirl of grey smoke. So once again, I put it out of my mind and left, unlikely to see her again in the near future.

Until the next day.

Walking through the craft market, I saw that familiar silhouette of Sideshow Bob, and heard her talking on the phone. She saw us and displayed that afternoon tea at the Ritz of a grin, and we fell into conversation. Once again, she was endearing and unfailingly polite, taking compliments well, but yet again she managed to evade the Friendzone by declining lunch with us on flimsy grounds.

As we took our leave, I realised what had been bothering me more and more each time since that first night when she was so tender in her rejection of me.

Firstly, it is always better for women to be utterly crushing of the men they turn down, as it ensures some finality there and then. Worse still is to tell fibs about the reason for the rejection. For a good example, Bashevis The Elder used the "I'm kind of seeing someone" trick, then went on to pull one of my friends - and this despite some of the most excellent chat-up lines in the extensive Freedmanslife repertoire (including a cheeky question on the policy towards dating shorter men than the long-limbed Bashevis). Sideshow Bob used so much physical and verbal sweetness that I felt exuberant in defeat. What I needed was that kick in the gonads.

Secondly, and this is the tricky part, I realised that Sideshow Bob is not what she first seems. Either the treacly surface does not hide anything other than more molasses, rather than the deep layers I was hoping and looking for, or it is a permanent defence mechanism that few, if any, are going to penetrate.

Bison was on hand to add to this analysis with his observations of her physical appearance. Her hair tied up and without make-up, she now looked rather exhausted. The teeth were definitely more Cornish butter than Chantilly cream, the skin pearly rather than radiant. We concluded that her smoking had probably risen from a casual handful a day to a pretty comprehensive habit, and this was taking its toll.

More than that, I got a sense of someone trapped in a bland and unfulfilling world they have chosen for themselves, rather like David Blaine staying in his glass box for an eternity. Here is a girl who comes from considerable wealth and success, with striking natural beauty, who is so desperate to show all and sundry that she is there on her own merit, not because of her looks or background. This makes her repress her inner idealist, her philosophical side, her artistic desires, her need to veg out occasionally, and prevents her from having friends who don't fit into the latest fashions and can't dance like Usher.

She seems to have taken to smoking as a method of comfort, much as I do with food (only my habit expands the waist line whilst hers decreases it). Her upbringing and urge to be classy mean she handles situations with that easy cuteness, but it hides a sadness that she cannot allow herself to just connect on a meaningful level, as it would detract from her (self-)image as the perfect It Girl, combining the right amount of brains and beauty to attract people without intimidating them. As we know, bland and planned is the way of the world today.

The law course and career allow her to demonstrate she can make it in the hard-nosed man's world on her own credentials - or so she believes. Simultaneously, she finds increasingly that she will need to accept that this is not all that people look at; her beauty and poise will win her favours and cases, and this just makes her try even harder to make it on her smarts alone, rather than use that Ally McBeal feminine guile.

Most peculiarly, I noticed she has developed an odd accent, part Mid-Atlantic and part-Israeli. Was this there before or is it recent, a construct that separates her from her peers and harks back to the meaningful and altruistic months spent in Israel, helping those less fortunate, beautiful and wealthy as she?

In any event, I am reminded by the Bison not to care too much - my interest in her would be diminished if she looked more Playdough than Playboy. I am bothered and willing to psycho-analyse, work out what must be wrong with her (inference: for not going out with me) because she is attractive, and I should be far more concerned about what goes on in my own head, that I can write a thousand words about this girl without considering how warped I am myself.

Ultimately, I still get a sense that there is another layer to her, waiting to be discovered. And for one reason or another, that "one-itis" thing means that I still get the nagging feeling that she would be good for me and vice versa. Certainly we could make a trade between a reduction in her smoking and a reduction in my eating, with appropriate communal physical exercise to complement a meeting of minds and emotions. But that isn't going to happen, because this is a work of fiction, and even if it were real, that's never how these things play out.

So this is where we come to a close. I will always be Krusty the Klown to Sideshow Bob, and Sideshow Bob will always end up imprisoned and unhappy.