Anti-zionist ≠ antisemitic

Whether you are Jewish or not, you should be able to debate about zionism. And it should be possible to argue against zionism without being accused of being antisemitic.

Ken Livingstone’s crass comments have muddied the water. He has always been a maverick, but I fear that his current suspension or possible expulsion from the Labour Party are as much to do with Labour panicking in the run-up to local elections – plus the wish of some to box Corbyn into a corner – as a desire to take a firm anti-racism stand. Say that the Labour Party has a problem about antisemitism often enough and it somehow becomes ‘true’.

There are anti-semites across the political spectrum, even including the Left, despite its long and mainly noble past combatting fascism and racism.  (I have to confess that, like Livingstone, I have not personally known any Labour anti-semites.  But I know they exist.)

There is a danger that politicians will bend over backwards to cultivate the Jewish community – rather than spell out that antisemitism is a form of racism – along with islamaphobia, and blaming Roma gypsies, immigrants and refugee seekers as the cause of all our problems. Freedom of speech, tolerance of others and solidarity against racism and intolerance are at risk.

There is now a real danger that you cannot criticise zionism or the policies of the state of Israel or support Palestinian rights without being accused of antisemitism.

It doesn’t help that the whole history of Palestine is such a real mess.  And it is worth remembering the crucial part Britain and the rest of Europe played in creating this mess.

I understand that zionism finds its roots in centuries of European anti-semitism, but I find it hard to understand how so many European politicians were eager to find a Jewish homeland (initially not necessarily in Palestine) and how oblivious they seemed to the rights of the existing populations whether Masai or Arab.

At least the Balfour Declaration in its final form did acknowledge that nothing should be done to damage the civil or religous rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. Nevertheless, it was clear from early on that British politicians could foresee the day when Jewish migrants were in the majority and Palestine became a Jewish state. Hardly surprising that there was Arab opposition from the outset.

Then came the mess following the end of the British mandate in 1948, with the United Nations solution of partition, rejected by Arab leaders as being against the principles of self-determination.

This is where I start to wonder what should have happened.  Should the Palestinians have caved in, avoiding the crippling war that followed?  Was a two-state solution viable? The Arabs of Palestine have been deeply wronged, but how far back can one go in giving them back what is theirs?  Not I fear 1922 or 1948, but perhaps 1967?  Though every year that passes with increasing Jewish migration and Israel hardening its control over the land occupied in 1967 makes and end to occupation harder to envisage.

Has the moment come to accept that there should be one state, Israel, but with citizenship for all, Jews, Arabs and others?

So I feel despairing about political resolution.  But at least I want to add my voice to those who call for the state of Israel to stop human rights violations and end the siege of Gaza.

Many of my Jewish friends are signatories to Jews for Justice for Palestinians. But some are not.  I understand their anguish as their very identity as Jews seems somehow tied up with zionism – the sense that Jews have a right to a homeland in Israel. (But a right going back to an injustice done over 2000 years ago?!) I sympathise more with the views of the Israeli, Shlomo Sand, whose article I read in the Guardian last year. He seeks to separate the sense of Jewish identity with the identity of the state of Israel. He argues for a secular state of Israel, in which both Jews and Arabs are citizens.

Sunday morning

Today’s Observer publishes two very different contributions. I forced myself to read to the end of Nick Cohen’s unpalatable contribution, and wondered yet again why the Observer gives him space.  So it was reassuring to follow up with Jonathan Friedland’s more sophisticated and caring piece.

I don’t really go along with his analogy of a hypothetical country like Israel but populated by black people – and the different way criticism in Britain would be treated. But he goes on to spell out the position of a liberal zionist (he has elsewhere pointed out that people too often mistaker right-wing zionism to represent zionism generally). He accept’s Israel’s discrimination against its Arab population and is critical of the post-1967 occupation, but questions whether the dark events of 1948 nullify Israel’s right to exist, though he clearly hopes that one day Israel will acknowledge the price Palestinians paid.

It is worth remembering the statistic he gives, that 93% of British Jews told a 2015 survey that Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews. But I think he is wrong to say that most can take – as well as give – criticism of Israel. He says that what they want is for the left to treat Israel like any other flawed society and not to be picked out as a “byword for evil”.  Many of us who criticise Israel also criticise Assad, Putin, Saudi Arabia – and the US.

But yes, perhaps he is right in a way.  We criticise Israel in a particular way.  Because how could a people (or rather, their government) with their history of the holocaust treat a minority so badly?

Street lighting in the country

Those of us who wish to see l’éclairage public – public street lighting – reduced, and remaining lights made more economic, fight a losing battle round here.

The previous mayor installed a lot of  street lights in Bréau (and up the cul de sac at the top of my road – leading at that time to one house, plus a number of building plots owned by members of his family …). The current mayor once said to me, with a certain amount of hostility: “But madame, there are people in our village who work and who need to come back in the dark.  Besides, we need the lights to prevent crime – there have been a number of break-ins recently.”

How many people work at night here?  Maybe half a dozen?  And for that we have installed a system which cost more than a hundred grand.  We are in the country here; people carry torches.  Prevent crime?  Hmm.  He referred to break-ins which happened in the village itself – despite the existence of the street lights.

Actually, I have nothing against street lights within the village, provided they are more discreet (and less ugly) than the existing ones, powered more economically and probably turned off at midnight.  But I don’t see any reason for the bright yellow beacons you see at the entrance to the village in the photo I took at two in the morning from my bedroom window. Virtually nobody parks there at night; they are simply an outdated statement of civic pride.

In contrast, the mayor of le Vigan, of whom I am a big fan, has included in his programme of upgrading the town some positively elegant street lights. I’ve not been around at night to see if they are turned off, but given his eco credentials, I am sure that they are run economically.

Income tax

I’ve done it.  I’ve completed my online income tax returns within a week of the forms being available and  five weeks before the deadline!

In the early years the online service was a nightmare, frequently falling over, regularly requiring me to register for a new certificate to complete the returns, once even making me late (not that anybody cared).

It has got much better.  Still, the tax forms are daunting, even more so if you are not a native French speaker.  It’s not the sort of language I come across every day.

For an ordinary French pensioner with no foreign assets or bank accounts, and no change in circumstances, the forms are made as easy as possible.  Much is pre-filled from the previous year – details of your household, status etc.  You just have to add up your monthly income (the French always talk of income in monthly terms) and insert the annual figure.

If you are a foreign pensioner, with pensions originating outside the euro zone, life is much more complicated.  As well as the main tax form (2042), I have to fill in one on foreign income sources (2047) and foreign bank details (3916).  I suppose I should be grateful that I don’t have any other financial assets, as things get even more difficult!

As it is, the main issue is deciding what my income is in euros. I can’t simply convert the figures given in the P60s as these are for the UK tax year April-March, so I have to dig into two years statements from pension providers to get January-March figures  for one year and April-December figures for the next year (not helped by the state pension being expressed in weeks not months…).

Then there is the question of what exchange rate to use to calculate my income in euros.  Way back at the start of our life in France I asked the local tax man this question.  He was absolutely useless (further, he never did understand the UK tax year being April to March) and suggested that I should use the exchange rate for the day on which money was transferred each month.  No way.  Besides it did not make sense as I keep part of my pension in the UK – and yet it has to be declared in euros for tax purposes.  So I decided several years ago to take the average annual exchange rate published by the European Central Bank.  Nobody so far has challenged this.

Where would I be without the ability to have a spreadsheet on my computer?  No wonder I come across other Brits who employ accountants.

The vagaries of the exchange rates  produce some dramatic changes in my financial fortunes.  I see that between 2014 and 2015 my income went up by £536.  But because the exchange rate used for 2014 income was  £1=1.24€ and that for 2015 is £1=1.37€, my income for tax purposes in 2015 rose by 6000€! Well, you could argue that the improved health of sterling should mean that my higher monthly tax bill for 2015 (payable from this summer) should not hurt as my income in euros will also have gone up – or at least that part transferred to France.  But the exchange rate is back at the 2014 level and going down as Brexit fears make the money markets wobble. So I will be paying last year’s increased tax bill with a reduced income.

I pay tax at the rate of 30% (for the income band €26,792 – €71,826.  I would pay 20% if in the UK). I don’t begrudge this, as by French standards I have a reasonable income – and anyhow I believe in progressive income tax.  But I have come across some interesting figures on a site for Brits living in France (www.french-property.com):

In practice, less than 50% of inhabitants in France pay any income tax at all; only around 14% pay at the rate of 30%, and less than 1% pay at the rate of 45%.

Even allowing for French income being lower than British, I find this figure pretty astounding. But it is a salutary reminder than many, many people in France have to make do with much less money than I have.

 

French Income Tax Rate (2015 exchange rate)

Up to €9,700 (£13364) 0%

€9,701 (£13364) – €26,791(£36910) 14%

€26,792(£36910) – €71,826 (£98955) 30%

€71,827 (£98955) – €152,108 (£209561) 41%

Above €151,108 (£209561) 45%

UK Income Tax rates

£0-£10,000 0%

£10,000-£41,865 20%c

£41,865-£150,000 40%

£150,000+ 45%

Reward: new sunglasses

I’m quite excited.  Yesterday I bought what I think was my first ever pair of non-prescription sunglasses. Even given that I treated myself to Ray-Bans, they were a fraction of the cost of the last pair.

When we were children nobody wore sunglasses.  I don’t remember wearing them at university or even when I lived in Nigeria, where the light could be very intense.  One simply squinted ones eyes up. I seem to remember when the children were young I occasionally resorted to clip-on sun lenses over my ordinary glasses.  And I can remember passing on my mother’s (false) wisdom that sunglasses were not good for the children when Kate tried to wear cheap pink numbers as a fashion accessory.

Then, as I aged, I succumbed to sunglasses, but with prescription lenses.  My most recent pair , which I bought in Scotland about seven years ago, have served me well, but no longer match my magical new vision. (The optician said, dismissively, that they had anyhow reached the end of their life.) So I walked out of the shop with my new sunglasses, feeling as pleased as others might when buying a new dress.

All that was to celebrate the end of my cataract operations.  The second one, on my right eye, took place on Tuesday. It was more painful than the first for some reason, but already by yesterday I was beginning to see the new world.  I look out of my window and the landscape is a profusion of vivid greens.  This is partly because spring is well under way, but partly because I’m now seeing colours so much clearer.  White walls are no longer yellow, and the sky is a brilliant blue.

As exciting as the new colours is the improvement in vision.  The left eye has been left myopic – too short sighted to try and make it match the right, but I can now focus on the computer screen without developing a crick in my neck- and the right eye has been given much sharper long distance vision.  I will now join the army of people who drive with one eye and read with the other.

Once I get my new prescriptions I will probably buy different pairs for reading, computer/cello, and driving, but for the timebeing I can get away with my one pair of sunglasses.  Not only can I drive in them, but for the first time I shall be able to read outside in the sun (with my left eye, of course…).  And thanks to the progressive nature of the lenses (good work, salesman) the lower half of the lenses are less coated, so that is one less reason to trip over steps.

 

Eye drops

Managing  my eye drops is currently complicated. I already have two separate drops which have to be applied at 12 hour intervals for my glaucoma – plus two different types of eye lubricant to counteract the drying effect of this medication.

Now I have to add drops three times a day in the run up to next week’s cataract operation (right eye) and different ones for a month post op (left eye).

The complication is that there needs to be a ten- minute or so gap between each application so that the different medications have a chance to work. And I have to remember where I have got to with each eye.

 

Cello struggles

I have picked up my bow after nearly a month’s silence while I had visitors.  It is a struggle: I find it so frustrating that I did not start as a child – or even a young adult.  I have a reasonably good ear, but I’m too stiff (not helped by ailing shoulders) to make progress with the vibrato I need to improve the tone.

My teacher, Jennifer, is doing her best.  Instead of my usual diet of baroque music, where you can get away without having much vibrato, she has given me more romantic pieces by Chopin and Piazzolle (an Argentinian composer known for tango music). The Piazzolla goes up very high, so for the first time I’m playing at the very top end of the top two strings (for those who know about cellos, this means using the thumb as well as fingers to stop the strings.  An interesting additional physical challenge, but not yet fit for public consumption.

At the weekend we had our regular Ecole de Musique public ‘auditions’.  I was playing a trio by Gluck with a delightful group of girls of about ten.  This went OK, which is more than can be said by modern piece I played with adult pianist and violonist (each being discreetly backed up by their teachers): the syncopation definitely got out of control.

The teachers also performed and Jennifer played a beautiful extract from Brahms’ first cello sonata.  As you can see, these are informal affairs with no dress code!

 

Life in Mars

My house is on a hill called Pied Méjean.  On our side of the road, we are in the commune of Bréau et Salagosse; on the other side of the road is alien territory – the commune of Mars.  The inhabitants (less than 200) apparently call themselves ‘les Martiens’.

It’s curious that I cross this road so rarely – other than our trips up to the Col de Mouzoules, the splendid mountainous saddle which is my view to the west.  This year both lots of grandchildren discovered a delightful little stream in the village and Jude and Ed followed up the path that led from this river through the woods to Breau and added it to their daily constitutionals.

The village has some extraordinary unattractve houses buiilt over the past 20 years, but you can still see the orchards and woods which I remember from our first arrival, and the village itself is full of old Cévenol houses, dominated by a splendid old house, lived in by friends of mine.

The cherry and apple blossom is suddenly here and I decided to do my morning walk to Mars, rather than the habitual stroll to Serres. Well worth it: the blossom was lovely, and shone in the morning sun.

Mind you, I don’t need to go further than my land to enjoy the blossom, both mine, and the wild cherries flowering on the hill to the west – in the commune of Mars.

 

 

Hailstones

Yes, this year’s quirky weather continues.  Yesterday started off warm – about 18 degrees and reasonably sunny.  Then I heard thunder, looked out of the window and saw the sky to the north and west was completely black.  As so often, I could watch the weather come down the valley towards us, expecting torrential rain – but it was a violent hailstorm, which lasted about 20 minutes, and then moved on south.  

An hour later, the sky was blue again.

Last of Easter visitors

Yesterday I waved goodbye to the last of my spring visitors, Sally Mitchison and John Charlton, who leave in the pouring rain.  (Surely this must have been the most inclement Easter weather for years.)

We have had a lovely long weekend.  On Saturday they enjoyed market and the Sally and I went up to the trout farm to buy our supper, and yesterday, in  glorious sunshine we went to the Cirque de Navacelles, where Sally did the walk to where the River Vis gushes out of the hillside.

For me the highlights were Sally’s cooking, which was absolutely delicious, and lots of talking, including John’s riveting account of his research into the family of Dick Mitchison (Sally’s grandfather, friend of my grandmother – and kindly friend to all of us).  I look forward to reading the book.  As Sally is not only a psychiatrist but also, of course, a qualified and very experienced doctor, I got lots of helpful and sympathetic advice about my various ailments, equipping me to ask sensible questions at this afternoon’s meeting with my GP.

First eye operation

It’s now five days since cataract operation number one. Although I was full of misgivings before turned out to be as straightforward as friends aid it would be.

It is curious that I should have been so full of trepidation, given this was a more straightforward op than the four others I have had in the past three years. Perhaps it was because it was an eye and I knew I would not be asleep. Or perhaps I have just had enough medical interventions.

Anyhow I joined the other old fogeys in the day surgery waiting room and when it was my turn the staff could not have been nicer.

I had already had my two obligatory disinfectant showers at home and, despite the fact that it was just an eye, I had to dress up in the usual paper garments head to foot – though this time I was very sensibly given a voluminous poncho style cotton dressing gown.  So no gaping holes behind!

Dr Sonnenmeiser, the very nice surgeon, came and shook my hand, explained the procedure again, promising the whole thing would take about 20 minutes, before covering my face with some sort of protective, moulded material, with just a small hole in it for my eye.

I had already had eye drops to anaesthetise the eye, so I really did not feel much other than the occasional tugging or pressing sensation.

My eyelids were propped open and most of the time I just saw an incredibly bright light ahead. I had been too squeamish to read the explanatory literature I had been given and tried not to think too much about what the doctor was cutting out. I was not too keen on the pressing sensation as he inserted the new lens!

Then it was all over and I was driven by my taxi driver – an old friend from radiotherapy days – back home.

Apart from a slight sensation of having sand in. Y eye, or a badly fitting contact lens, I haven’t had any discomfort. I can see already that things are brighter, and I’m slightly less myopic. But I won’t be able to judge the difference u till I get new glasses. And that cannot happen until after the second operation, on the 19th.

Meanwhile reading and driving are not easy. But rest assured I’m being very cautious.