Thursday, December 16, 2010

Carmel tunnels

In an ironic twist, the tunnels though the Carmel mountains under the city of Haifa, that are now the longest tunnels in Israel, were opened while the Carmel forest blazed on top. As a consequence the event, when PM Netanyahu officially declared the pair of tunnels open, was hardly noticed. They will reduce the time taken to transit the city from about an hour to 8 mins. Drivers will avoid having to follow the coastline driving right thru the busy port area of Haifa (with 27 traffic lights), that has always been a nightmare. Also, the tunnels have an exit/entrance right in the middle of the City, so that many people wishing to enter Haifa will be able to avoid the traffic jams and this will reduce the amount of traffic within the city too.

It is estimated that the Carmel forest will take 40 years to recover from the terrible fires, although nature might make the recovery much quicker. But the tunnels will be with us forever and will make a signficant contribution to the modern traffic flow in Israel. The idea of digging tunnels thru the Carmel range under Haifa was first proposed by the British about 100 years ago. Then it was taken up by the Israeli State, but it has taken until now to bring the concept to reality. The company established to dig the tunnels decided to use the primitive means known as "drill and explode" rather than the much more modern method of using huge drilling machines. This was because the tunnels are not very long by international standards, only 5 km, and the drilling machines are too expensive. A Chinese company with experience in drilling tunnels was contracted, and did the whole project in 3 years with 550 workers working 24/7. The tunnels are privately owned and the toll of 11 NIS will be collected by the company for 30 years and then the tunnels will be handed over to the Government on the "use and transfer" basis. The entrances and exits were contructed by an Israeli company and the billing system is the same as that of Route 6, so that there are no toll booths.

At the same time that the fire fighting services in Israel were shown to be inadequate and obsolete (the PA fire fighters turned up with a modern up-to-date fire truck, donated by the EU), Israel has again taken a stride into the future with the Carmel tunnels.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Clinton's speech

Secty. of State Hillary Clinton gave a much-awaited speech last Friday at the Saban Forum in the Brookings Intitute in Washington. Since the US has admitted that its previous approach to Mid-East strategy, focussing on the building moratorium on the West Bank, has been a failure, people were waiting to hear her explain what the US intends to do next? Clinton of course stressed that this is only a set-back in the US drive for peace. She did not admit that the whole approach favored by Pres. Obama, namely that solving the Israel-Palestine dispute would somehow resolve all other conflicts in the Middle East and make the US a favorite of all Muslims, is deeply flawed. Clearly from the Wikileaks papers this is not something believed by the Arabs themselves. Nevertheless, the US will press on regardless, with indirect talks between the parties.

Clinton stated that the US could not itself solve the problem, this requires the two sides to compromise. Nor can the US impose a solution, something that infuriated the PA leadership and resulted in threats of future violence. The US may offer "bridging proposals" and may ask PM Netanyahu to come to the talks with a map showing the desired borders between Israel and Palestine preferred by the Israeli Government. In exchange it seems that the Palestinians need do nothing except provide their reaction to Netanyahu's map, not exactly an unexpected response (expect rejection and more threats of violence). It seems that pretending there is a peace partner when there is none simply does not work, yet some clever leaders seem not to understand this.

The issues to be attempted first are the "core" issues of borders, security, and refugees. Regarding refugees, in a recent interview Saeb Erakat stated that there are now 7 million Palestinian refugees and they all have the "right of return" to Israel. He also stated that Israel caused the refugee problem, thus completely ignoring history, since it was the invasion by the five Arab States of the new Israeli State that caused the refugee problem in the first place. The Israeli Government is concerned that once again the US will cause the peace process to become hung up on an issue where the two sides have irreconcilable differences. Israel should itself advance its solution to the refugee problem, agreeing only to consider the repatriation of Palestinians who were actual refugees themselves in 1948, according to international law, but not their descendents. Sixty two years later this would cut the numbers down to a few thousand at most. At least this could provide a basis for the US to try to bridge the huge gap between the two sides on this difficult issue. So Sen. Mitchell is now here again, making the usual rounds, talking to the usual suspects, but its not much of a mystery what will happen in the end.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Jazz!

Saturday night we went to the 80th birthday concert put on by Stanley Ross, the leader and trumpeter of the Stompers Dixieland Jazz Band. Stanley comes from Glasgow where he developed an obsession for jazz at an early age and started a jazz band in his teens. Eventually his band toured Scotland and Britain, but he could not make a living from that so he got a job distributing light bulbs. Stanley is also an Orthodox Jew so after retiring he made aliyah and brought his four children here, now he has 22 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren (no wonder the Jewish birth-rate is increasing). His concert was held in the refurbished hall of the Young Israel Congregation in Netanya to a packed audience. Not only is Stanley getting on in years, but three months ago he had a triple bypass operation, but you could hardly believe it as he blew his trumpet with verve last night.

This was a great concert, with a full complement of excellent musicians: Larry Brant, a huge guy from Long Island NY, who played the banjo and the trumpet, and is a musician who can play any instrument; Ed Mishnov from Russia, who played the double bass, and also plays in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; Zig Benson, the drummer, who has spun off another band called "Pzazz Jazz" (that we saw at the AACI last week); Roy Rich, an excellent guitarist from Manchester; Evy Tamari, on the piano from Detroit; Amnon Ben Artzi, the Israeli trombonist, who started the band in Israel with Stanley, and who in real life is an engineer; and the diminuitive Jacques Sany, a French soprano saxophonist, who grew up on Sidney Bechet in Paris, and is a renowned artist who plays around the world (he just returned from China) and is known in New Orleans where he has played in the Preservation Hall (see the web for more details).

The total of eight wonderful musicians belted out many old classics (St. Louis Blues, Bourbon Street Parade, Bie meir bis du schone, Bill Bailey) as well as some lesser known ones (Tishomingo Blues). I especially love when the trombone blasts a deep long note and the soprano saxophone comes soaring out thru it. If I have to pick a favorite it was Jaques Sany and Amnon Ben-Artzi playing "Petit Fleur" (this can be seen at ) what a combination! This was about the fifth time Stanley has had a final retirement concert. Let's hope its not the last.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Palestinian plans?

In an obscure revelation to a UK Arabic newspaper Al Quds al Arabi a PLO official, Hama Amireh, has revealed that the PA plans to cancel all previous security and peace agreements with Israel. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior advisor to Pres. Abbas, reportedly plans to convene the PLO/Fatah central committees in order to cancel all commitments made to Israel, such as the Oslo Accords and the Road Map, that require the PA to make steps towards peaceful coexistence with Israel. Specifically these accords require the PA to give up violence and terrorism. Instead the PA is working on a new plan for the Palestinians.

This may be a response to the failure of the US to force Israel to accept the conditions of PA Pres. Abbas that all building cease throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Apparently they feel that Pres. Obama is a failure and has not kept his word to force Israeli PM Netanyahu to accept the PA's conditions prior to peace negotiations. Another reason for the change might be that the rift between Fatah and Hamas, that controls Gaza, is based on the difference in their policies towards Israel. Hamas continues to use terrorism and believes that Israel can only be forced out of Palestine by armed force, whereas recently Pres. Abbas has been on record as opposing the use of terrorism. A change in this policy might bring the two sides closer together and allow them to come to mutual terms. A rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas is more important for the Palestinians than a peaceful resolution with Israel.

Recently the PA leadership, including PM Salam Fayyad, have been working on a plan to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood. There are two reasons for this, first the comparative economic development of the PA with the huge infusion of monies from the EU, the US and others. Probably the amount of funds that are being siphoned off by the leadership is not as great as under Arafat, i.e corruption is less, and the funds are now more targeted to specific projects, under the guidance of Quartet Representative Tony Blair. Second the training and deployment of large numbers of PA Security Forces that are now patrolling the PA cities. Not many people are aware that Israel has accepted the deployment of these Palestinian forces, and has withdrawn the IDF from positions within the West Bank, as well as having given up raids for Palestinian terrorists. It seems that between them both the PA Security Forces and the IDF have mopped up all wanted Hamas terrorists in the West Bank and so the IDF has ceased its operations and targeted killings there.

There is the possibility that the PA is taking this course merely as a way of bringing pressure on Israel and the US, or is posturing to take actions that they will never do, such as Pres. Abbas's repeated threats to resign his position as Pres. But, whether they are genuine or not, these schemes represent a move away from any indication of peaceful intentions or desire for coexistence with Israel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Lindenstrauss Report

The headlines in Israel are focussing on the Report of the State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on the Israel Fire Services. This Report was written before the Carmel blaze started and though PM Netanyahu asked Lindenstrauss to delay release of the Report in order to include the response of the fire services to the blaze, Lindenstrauss refused, regarding it as a delaying tactic. As expected the Report is extremely critical of the Israeli Fire Services and indicates that their equipment, their training and their coordination are inadequate.

Here is a more detailed listing of the problems:
*There are not enough fire stations and their distribution is poor
*There are not enough fire trucks (349) and most of them are more than 20 years old
*There is not enough manpower (1,685) and not enough of these are first responders (349)
*The ratio of fire fighters to population is ca. 1:10,000 while in other developed countries it is 1:1,000
*There is no computerized communication system, the radio system used is obsolete
*The fire fighters training school is inadequate and dangerous

And who is to blame for this terrible situation, the main culprit identified is Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas, the Sephardi religious party. To say that he has neglected previous warnings would be a gross understatement. He is on record as totally ignoring the fire service while focussing on the support of religious schools. He has neither requested funding nor used available funding. The second culprit is Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who has not provided enough funds to expand the service. But, of course, these inadequacies go back much further to previous Governments. Also, it is unlikely that Yishai will resign or be asked to resign, since he is from Shas and Netanyahu depends on their support in his coalition. Yishai already issued a statement saying that they are blaming him because he is religious and/or Sephardi. One can say that ulitmately PM Netanyahu should shoulder the blame, but only the opposition is blaming him and Tzipi Livni is calling for his resignation. He did not start the fires and his response was considered by most to be quick and strong. He promised thet he is introducing legislation soon to establish a new national Israel Fire Service that will be under the Defense Ministry (currently the Fire Service is under the local municipalities that come under the Interior Ministry). Also, there will be a separate appropriation for them and there will be a specially trained unit for fighting forest fires. They will also be equipped with the latest generation of fire trucks and with a few water dropping planes. As usual it is too late for the Carmel disaster, but hopefully it will not be too little for the next major fire.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Game over

The US Adminstration has publicly admitted defeat in the task of trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for direct talks to resolve their differences. Any fool could have told Pres. Obama that it wouldn't work, but let's examine why.

In the game of nations (or in the Palestinian case "entities") there are certain rules. Rule number one is never to announce in advance that you expect to solve the problem in a limited period of time, such as a year, as Obama did, foolish, very foolish. The second rule is never to take sides and try to impose the interests of one side on the other. This is what Pres. Obama did after visiting with many Middle Eastern leaders, King Feisal of Saudi Arabia, Pres. Assad of Syria, Pres. Mubarak of Egypt, and so on. He thought apparently, "if I am to get the Arabs to like us I must take their side and force Israel to accept it, after all there are a lot more Arabs than Jews." But, it doesn't work that way. After bringing pressure on Israel to introduce a 10 month freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, the Palestinians upped the ante, because they are really not interested in having a peace agreement. No leader of the Palestinians wants to go down in history as the one who declared an end of the conflict with Israel, so no conditions that Obama could impose on Israel could satisfy them. When they found that Israel would not extend the moratorium to Jerusalem, that's what they insisted on. In the end Obama was not able to persuade PM Netanyahu to make enough concessions as preconditions to talks to satisfy them. Whatever he could have done would never have been enough for the Palestinians. Finally Obama and his team realized that they were treading deeper into quicksand. They failed in the first requirement of peace talks to ask the serious question, do both sides really want peace, and the answer in this case is that the Palestinians do not!

Abba Eban is famously remembered to have remarked, "the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." But, why? Because they don't want to take any final step that will lead to peace and in effect accept their defeat at not conquering the whole of Palestine. That's why on several occasions, at Camp David, at Taba, Arafat ignored or rejected very genertous Israeli offers. Similarly Abbas does the same. Since a building freeze was not an issue in negotiations for 18 years, one must assume that it was thought up as a suitable excuse for not continuing in current talks. Of course, much of the world, including the UN Secty. Gen. Ban-ki Moon, blame Israel for the breakdown for not instituting a full and continuing building freeze. But, in reality there is nothing that Israel could do to satisfy the need for the Palestinians to avoid any agreement. So now, it up to the US again, what is their Plan B? And in truth there isn't one. But, the Palestinians have a Plan B, that is a unilateral declaration of their State within the pre-1967 borders, and Israel is hoping and expecting that Obama has learnt enough that he will strongly oppose or prevent such a Plan. Watch this space.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dangerous meddling

Why is it that all countries in the world feel that they must meddle in our affairs? Argentina has followed the move of President Lula da Silva of Brazil in recognising a Palestinian State. But, of course, there is no such State. According to all previous practice there must be bilateral negotiations between Israel, a recognized member of the UN, and the Palestinian leadership to resolve all issues between them before such a state could be declared.

The international response to Israel's request for assistance in fighting the devastating Carmel blaze was heart-warming. Eighteen countries provided help, including Egypt, Jordan and the PA. However, because the Arabs were not able to defeat Israel militarily and because in the fulness of time they were not able to force Israel to accept their dictates, even with huge US pressure, the Palestinians have now embarked on a policy of unilateral declaration of their State. Further they have chosen to take a hard line with no compromise in all potenial negotiations with Israel, so that they require Israel to accept their positions on borders, stopping of building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the return of so-called "refugees" to Israel before any negotiations! Not to mention the terrorist policies of Hamas in Gaza.

Even with pressure from the Obama Administration on the issue of the continuation of the freeze, PM Netanyahu would not give way any more. He gave them a 10 month freeze on the West Bank, but of course that was not enough. They still demand a freeze applied to East Jerusalem that no Israel Government can give because East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel back in 1967. It may be that they don't recognize that annexation, but a sure way to prevent any negotiations is to make a precondition that the freeze be extended to Jerusalem. It makes nonsense of the whole negotiation by the Obama Administration with Israel over a continuation of the freeze, that can never satisfy the Palestinians. So the complex process of the US giving significant concessions to Israel for that deal has all but collapsed, as have the direct negotiations.

In order to avoid direct negotiations, where they are not prepared to move one iota from their maximal demands, the Palestinians have come up with this strategy of a unilateral declaration of their State. But, the countries that are in thrall to the Palestinians, who see only the need to satisfy and mollify them, are making a big mistake. Don't they realize that once the Palestinians take unilateral action, Israel can also do so. Freed of bilateral negotiations, Israel can claim and annex the land that has been settled by Jewish settlers with a strong basis in international law. If there is a border conflict, and the Palestinians then ask the UN to help them, the UN should not be able to because the UN was always behind the requirement for bilateral negotiations. So what would Brazail and Argtentina do then, send their own armies to fight for the Palestinians against Israel? Uruguay is next to say that it will recognize a Palestinian State, but Uruguay is also a friend of Israel. They just don't understand the potentially disastrous consequences of their meddling.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Bright source

There is general agreement that we need to find alternative energy sources to polluting fossil fuels such as coal and oil that are carbon-rich and produce carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter in the air. Among the "green" alternatives are wind power, wave power and solar power. Of these solar power seems the simplest, after all we live from the energy of the sun through plant photosynthesis and animal consumption of plants and other animals.

This idea has been around for at least forty years when Arnold Goldman came from the US and established the company Luz in Israel in the 1970s to harness the sun's rays for energy production. But, the costs were prohibitive then compared to cheap fuel, until the cost of gasoline approached $70 per barrel. Then with various forms of incentives, such as subsidies and tax breaks, alternative enrgy sources began to be competitive. Almost everywhere you go now you see wind farms, vast expanses of huge turbines on windy land. But, solar energy has been slower to take off. Now however, the largest solar farm is being built in California in a place called Ivanpah in the middle of the Mojave desert by a company named BrightSource Energy, with the support of the California and US Governments. At its opening recently Gov. Arnold Schwartznegger said "Some people look out at the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness, but I see miles and miles of a gold mine, a gold mine of great, great opportunities." The company BrightSource is an inheritor of Luz, and although it is working in California, much of the know-how was developed in Israel. It is unfortunately true that the US and California is a more attractive location for this development, but hopefully the Israeli Government will soon realize that it is lagging behind.

All alternative energy sources have drawbacks. Solar power has two, how to focus enough of the sun's rays on a box to boil enough water to produce electricity through a dynamo, and how to keep the mirrors clean. As to the first issue, the Ivanpah power station will start out with ca. 1,000 large curved mirrors to produce 370 Mgw of power. All of the mirrors must be focussed on a single target upon a tower. How to keep them focussed when the sun moves across the sky, well of course the mirrors must move too. But each one must move in a distinct arc, and this must all be controlled by computers, and the program to enable this was developed in Israel. Also, in a desert environment the mirrors quickly become covered in dust/sand, thus reducing their efficacy. So there must be a continuous cleaning of the mirrors. How to do this? Israeli technology developed a vehicle on tracks that automatically travels along the rows of mirrors and washes them clean with a high velocity spray of water. Of course, all this is expensive and complex, but the technical difficulties seem to have been solved and we can hopefully look forward to a bright future of solar power.
(This blog is partly based on an article by Hilary Leila Krieger in the J'sam Post Magazine 3/12/10 at: )

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Carmel fire

The Carmel fire is one of the geatest disasters to strike modern Israel. Forty two people were killed, mostly on one bus that was trapped in the fire and 17,000 have been evacuated. Kibbutz Beit Oren has been largely destroyed and the artist's village of Ein Hod partially destroyed. The fire started near the Druse village of Ussifiya, it is thought to have started as a result of a bonfire that was not doused, this is criminal negligence. Later it was reported that there were several more fires, so arson is suspected. These additional fires are a possible case of Arab terrorism and several Arab men have been arrested for starting fires elsewhere. It would not be the first time that Arabs have deliberately started fires in Israel. But, this time the dryness of the forest due to the lack of rain for seven months has led to this fire getting out of hand. Yesterday the weather was 30 deg C (ca. 90deg F) and no rain is in sight.

What was shocking was to read how inadequate is the fire department's equipment, insufficient engines and lack of water resources. Also, Israel does not have planes that drop water or fire-retardent. Luckily offers came from several countries, and planes from Turkey (!), Greece and Cyprus are now dumping material on the fires and Britain, France, the US, Russia, Bulgaria and several other countries have offered help, including the PA. Egypt and Jordan! There's nothing like a natural disaster to bring people together and after all, Israel helped several of those countries when they had disasters (Greece, Turkey, Haiti). It appears that the Fire Department under the Ministry of the Interior, run by Shas leader Eli Yishai, has consistently underfunded the Fire Services compared to their own school systems.

One of the stories that came out of the fire was the heroism of the Commander of the Haifa Fire Brigades, Ahuva Tomer, the first woman to occupy such a high position. She drove into the fire to try to rescue some of her men, and was badly burned herself. She is now fighting for her life in Rambam Hospital in Haifa. However, you could call her impetuous act foolhardy. Both she and the driver of the bus carrying the forty trainee wardens going to evacuate the prison drove straight into the fire without assessing its speed or direction, and were quickly trapped. To me this indicates lack of training and experience and poor judgement.

It may be that such large fires result from the human tendency to put out smaller fires constantly, thus leaving the ground ready for a larger fire. We should probably not build in certain areas and should let nature take its course. There have been large fires in Israel before, but no deaths, such as a large fire last year at Gamla on the Golan, but apparently no lessons were learnt. Now hopefully money will be found to modernize and expand our fire fighting services. This is a hard way to learn lessons, but that is the way it goes.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Fair game

The current movie "Fair Game" (directed by Doug Liman) is a somewhat fictionalized account of a dreadful event in 2003, when the Bush White House used its power to destroy the career of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame (played creditably by Naomi Watts), in order to attempt to undermine the credibility of her husband Joe Wilson (played by Sean Penn). It is a story that is directly relevant to the question of WMDs in Iraq, and whether or not the Bush White House deliberately misled the public in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The story begins with an evaluation of the importation of a shipment of specially prepared tubes into Saddam's Iraq. After much analysis the CIA concludes tentatively that the tubes are not intended for centrifuges to purify uranium, but are rather ordinary tubes of the wrong length and diameter for that purpose, and are probably intended to be used in conventional weaponry. However, the Bush White House, evidently intending to find evidence for WMDs in Iraq, issues a report that claims that the tubes are intended for nuclear centrifuges. Valerie Plame, an active CIA agent involved in Middle East intelligence gathering and her colleagues are upset by this altering of their intelligence conclusions.

There is a report, attributed to the British (which they deny) that so-called "yellow cake" or uranium-containing ore is being exported from Niger to Iraq. There is a discussion in the CIA about how to find out if this report is true or not, and Plame suggests sending her husband, Joe Wilson, the former US Ambassador to Niger, who knows it well. The CIA accepts this suggestion and sends Wilson to find out. After meeeting people there and visiting the area himself he concludes that there is no way that 500 tons of yellow cake could have been trucked thru Niger to the border to be shipped to Iraq. When he returns he submits his report to the CIA, but then is chagrined to find that the White House completely reverses his findings and releases a report that indeed the yellow cake was exported from Niger to Iraq. In order to correct the record Wilson writes an op ed in the New York Times titled "What I didn't find in Africa." This undermined the WH story, and the presidential aide Karl Rove and VP aide "Scooter" Libby conspire to discredit Wilson. The scheme they come up with is to "out" his wife Plame, and so they leak a story to the well-known conservative correspondent Robert Novak. The title "Fair Game" comes from their designation of Plame. One of the accusations is that Plame sent her husband to Niger for the money involved, which was not possible since he would have needed higher CIA clearance. Nevertheless, by publishing her name openly, Novak and the WH destroyed Plame's credibility and her career, not to mention putting many of her contacts in the Middle East in jeopardy (a fictionalized story of Iraqi nuclear scientists is included to illustrate this aspect).

What is most striking in this story is that the WH aides, with enormous power, were perfectly ready to destroy the career of a valuable and dedicated CIA agent in pursuit of their "spin" on WMDs in Iraq, in order to justify the subsequent invasion and war. I admit as an ordinary observer that I was taken in by the Bush WH story of WMDs, including Saddam's pursuit of nuclear weapons from the centrifuge tubes and the yellow cake stories. Scooter Libby eventually went to prison for his actions, but was pardoned by Bush. After the Watergate incident, we should have learned not to trust the WH. Power corrupts.


Note: At the moment the huge conflagration in the Carmel region is still burning out of control. Forty trainee prison staff from all over Israel were incinerated because their bus drove up into the middle of the forest. Many towns and villages have been evacuated. PM Netanyahu has labelled it one of the greatest disasters in Israeli history.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


I am updating my original pamphlets (, that in my opinion are the best pro-Israel pr because they are simple, eye-catching and direct. Here are two graphs about population.

Note that the Israeli population is now ca. 7 million, more than the combined West Bank and Gaza Territories at ca. 4 million (these figures are taken from the World Bank Development Index). However, there are one million Israeli Arabs included in the Israeli population figures, so if that number is taken from the Israeli figure that leaves 6 million Jews and a total of 5 million Arabs. Not so much difference! Yet it's far from the Jews being swamped by Arabs (as recently suggested by Prof. Della Pergola of the HU, Jerusalem), especially since the two graphs are increasing at roughly the same rate (parallel slope). This means that the Israeli population is increasing thru immigration and natural increase about as much as the Arab birthrate, which is decreasing. So the "demographic bomb" is an exaggeration!

Note in this case that Jews have been an absolute majority in Jerusalem since 1896 (these data are from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs site ( and are census figures taken under the Turks, the British and Israel). Note also that the Christians were as numerous as the Muslims until ca. 1940, and their decrease since then mirrors the decrease in Christian populations throughout the Middle East (Lebanon, Iraq) due to Muslim persecution.
(These graphs are copyright by Jack Cohen and cannot be used without permission).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


The following letter appeared (edited) in the Jerusalem Post, 28/11/10

Yiddish in Venice?
Sir: Apparently Al Pacino has fallen into the same trap as many others, playing Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" as a Yiddish-speaking East European Jew of the kind familiar to Westerners ("Pacino's 'Merchant of Venice' a best buy" 24/11/10). But, in fact, Shylock, living in 17th century Venice would almost certainly have been a Sephardic Jew, speaking fluent Spanish (and Ladino) and Italian. Playing to our society's inbuilt prejudices makes Shylock a caricature, rather than a fully rounded and sympathetic human being. Nevertheless, full marks to Pacino for trying.
Jack Cohen

Letter in THE WASHINGTON STAR 3/4/81

The BBC's Shylock
The portrayal of Shylock in the BBC production of "The Merchant of Venice" was supposed to represent a return to Shakespeare's original conception of him as an "alien Jew." But no Jew in Venice in that period could have spoken with a Yiddish accent. He would probably have been descended from Jews who had lived in Italy for centuries and would have spoken Spanish as well as Italian fluently.

Also, it is arguable that Italians use their hands in gesture more than Jews and both groups have similar "Mediterranean temperaments." In fact, the contrast of the gesticulating Jew with an East European accent compared to the cool, calm, imperious Anglified Christians in this production shows only too well how the three British Jews who produced, directed and acted in it have learned their roles and been truly assimilated.

This production tells us more about contemporary British culture than about Shakespeare's Venice.

Jack S. Cohen Bethesda, Md.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!

Note: The crucial obstacle to Shylock receiving his "pound of flesh" (in Venice it would have been metric) as argued by Portia (playing the young lawyer), was that he was not allowed to shed even one drop of the victim's blood. However, nowadays Shylock would have wheeled in a laser and cut the flesh with this rather than a knife, since when a laser cuts flesh it seals (and sterilizes) all blood vessels and there is no bleeding. However, the point Shakespeare was making is that Jews are cruel, and Shylock demands flesh from a Christian on forfeiture of a financial bond. So the whole issue is a construction that one can be assured would never have been allowed in a Christian court. But, it is a great play and does show the humanity of the Jew.

It is noteworthy that Shakespeare makes the female lawyer smarter than her male counterparts and often in Shakespeare's plays women are presented positively. However, Shakespeare had two daughters, neither of whom, according to contemporary evidence, were taught to read or write. This does seem to be a strange discrepancy, arguing against the historical Shakespeare as the author of the plays.