Monthly Archives: August 2013

‘A Vision of Angels’ by Timothy Jay Smith – review

Originally published by Friends of Al Aqsa: http://foa.org.uk/publications/a-vision-of-angels

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A Vision of Angels by Timothy Jay Smith is a light but well balanced story surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict.  It’s general pace is appropriate and being a predominantly dialogue based novel, makes it easy to read. It was therefore not surprising to discover Timothy Jay Smith is also a screenwriter. This novel could easily translate well to screen or stage. There are some interesting and consistent characters presented to us throughout the novel.  However, it is their surroundings and the ensuing situations that find the characters lives unknowingly intertwined, that gives this novel its appeal.  In spite of the portrayal of characters from both sides of the divide, and all the various strata within those two sides, Smith manages to make each character’s life seem separate, while simultaneously being inextricably linked.  This is perhaps a nod to the clarity of the writing style, and could be said to represent a true mirror of the broken society. The selection of characters are somehow thrown together in the story, despite having high walls surrounding keeping them worlds apart, literally and figuratively, as represented in Smith’s prose.

The main characters, according to the author’s acknowledgements, are based on his lifetime of experience with Jewish families and his work with Palestinians during the peace process.  He also acknowledges his time spent travelling around the Middle East and the vast range of people he met along the way as inspiration for the characters in the novel.  The key characters are from each side of the Israel-Palestine divide and include: David Kessler, an American journalist whose work becomes a focal point of the story, Major Levy and his family; his wife Leah, daughter Rachel and most notably his son Mishe; a young Israeli soldier, quickly recognised as a hero, an angel, and later a peace activist. Amin Mousa, from a powerful Gazan land-owning family and an ally of Hamas. Issa and his wife Nadia; a Christian/Muslim Palestinian couple.  I warmed a great deal to these characters in particular.  The name of this character becomes an important but subtle undercurrent, that runs through the novel about the similarities between the 3 monotheistic religions. Other important characters are Captain Sa’ab Al-Rayes, Senior Security Officer in Gaza, Major Levy’s close friend IDF Chief of Staff Ben-Ami, Noam, a Brooklyn-born Jew, immigrated to Israel, and Katya, a single-mother, native of England.

Overall the story uses the characters well to describe and demonstrate the differences in culture and way of life.  The routine inter-mingling of faiths is made clear in symbols. Smith uses the title of Chapters as one way in which to demonstrate the importance of the three faiths and the role they play in everyday life in Palestine and Israel, and most notably of course in Jerusalem. On the other hand, I do feel that the most has not been made of an opportunity to develop one of the main families as Muslim Palestinians. This would hence give a more balanced insight into life in the Occupied territories for them.  Conversely, the use of a Christian Palestinian family as protagonists, could go some way in extending the popular generalization of all Palestinians being Muslims. Issa’s character plainly states this, ‘For the day he could forget about being part of a Christian minority in an Arab world and a Palestinian minority in an Israeli one.’

The writer makes good use of timescales and pace to connect the past and present and throughout the novel there is a great fluidity of transition from the past to present and vice versa. The historical context is key in this novel, not only because of the nature of the subject matter. The fluidity of movement over time, gives a great sense of singularity and consistency to the conflict. A well-constructed example of this is Amin Mousa looking through his father’s diary.  The flow of prose from Amin’s thoughts to the diary entry feels contiguous, and as such serves to join the past and the present as one. There are also many references to history and historical sites, which are of course a part of the fabric of the land. Nevertheless, Smith uses these to great effect perhaps to remind us of the importance of the cycle of history that is attached to the past, present, and future of the conflict.

Expanding the theme of time and history, another theme is the generational gap.  The older generation seem to represent an older more binary way of thinking, where themes of tradition and heritage appear to confuse the younger generation. Noam, an American immigrant, often expresses his minor crises of identity in various ways. David Kessler, a character who always seems to be somewhat detached from Jewish life, as an American of Jewish heritage. ‘Pausing outside a synagogue to listen to boys chant their nasal prayers, he pondered how, through their shared blood, it could have been him inside.’ ‘Could he deny his blood heritage that made him want to touch his forehead to Isaac’s altar or link arms with the men dancing in the synagogue?’ In spite of David’s secular, modernist/liberal stance, Smith shows him, and other characters, repeatedly struggling with denial of faith and issues of guilt that revolve predominantly around heritage and bloodlines. In this sense, Smith represents the spectrum of Jewish people that have immigrated from all over the world, while at the same time examining some of their individual and collective insecurities about tradition and culture, particularly through language and religious practices.  Comparatively, the Jewish characters seem to have more of a disconnection with their elders. The relationship between Mishe and his father is an example of such.  His girlfriend Nina also complains of the poor relations between her and her mother. The Arab characters on the contrary seem to have much stronger ties to the older generation.  This is perhaps because the fathers of the two main Arab characters, Issa and Amin, died in the conflict.  This seems to serve to venerate and almost idolise memories of them.

Another common thread that links the characters is political involvement. All the main characters are involved in some kind of movement, public speaking or action group that assists with pushing forward their solution to the conflict.  The power and perceptions created by the media is another running theme of this novel.

Demonstrates the power and perception of images in the media. Chief of staff Ben-Ami mistakes a scene from Iraq for a scene from Israel; ‘He knew those battlefields too well and had almost mistaken the broadcast for one of his own wars when the reporter identified it as Iraq.’ Timothy Jay Smith emphasizes the futility of war many times in this novel and this is one clear example. The repetition of images by the media is also remarked upon here, ‘Then suddenly the same picture popped up on the screens like cherries on a slot machine. A good Samaritan extending his hand to a mother whose injured son lay stretched across her knees.’  The interpretation of the image and representation of the soldier as a hero are strong, and Smith uses the pace well to represent a real-time understanding of the speed at which the photo moves from being just a photo, to an iconic image within hours. This image becomes the central focus of the story, interlinking all characters together in one image.

By and large this work succeeds at showing a balanced view of the conflict and the lives of those characters involved.  It illustrates life across every demographic, however the vision could be a little better balanced. The ending felt a little rushed as if all the action had been saved until the end, this added to the pace at the end however but made for slower reading in the first third of the novel. Although there were some interesting twists and surprises, the unsurprising fate of the Arab characters, as well as the occasional incorrect transliteration of Arabic, felt a little disappointing. Nonetheless, Timothy Jay Smith does balance out the predictable terrorist rhetoric with a revealing comment from Avi, an Israeli soldier with a colourful history, that David befriends. He astutely notes that in he eyes of the media, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”  This point not only ironically indicates a part of the plot that follows later in the story, but also emphasises the importance of language used by the media in creating and upholding images and perceptions, that serve to perpetuate and exacerbate conflict.

 

 


UEFA under- 21 finals hosted by Israel because ‘Sport is never just about sport.’[1]

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Sport, like its cultural counterpart music, has always been linked to politics. They both similarly form a large part of popular culture and consequently hold a firm place in collective public consciousness. In the contemporary age, where political awareness has all but disappeared in music[2], sport on the other hand, only continues to become increasingly involved with politics. This involvement that sport has seems to be going from strength to strength, moving ever forward in its interdependence with politics.

The ultimate sports event, the modern and ancient Olympic games, were initially a competition between the city-states of Ancient Greece. The foundations of this event were built on the existence of competition between states. In Ancient Rome the games then evolved into a competition that aimed to impose political and religious orders.  In its current form the games are recognised as a competition between nations. The games in their status as the pinnacle of all sporting goals, simply cannot avoid being connected to politics. The fervent nationalism involved in the Olympic games, despite the IOC’s public statements to the contrary, can only be aligned with the political.  Similarly, other international tournaments, particularly in games as prevalent in the public consciousness as football, cannot avoid being tarred with the same nationalistic brush. The nationalism that arises out of sport however is always viewed as being of the friendly variety rather than the threatening. The only other realm in which nationalism is as openly encouraged, is in the military. Therefore, if these events encourage some kind of nationalism, albeit congenial, then international sporting collectives such as UEFA and the IOC are the driving mechanisms behind this nationalism.

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The Special Relationship: Same tree, many branches.

Article first published by Friends of Al Aqsa, 2nd May 2013: http://foa.org.uk/news/the-special-relationship-same-tree-many-branches

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Relations between Britain and Israel have not seemed comparatively as significant as Israel – US relations in recent decades.  Historically however, the term ‘special relationship’ held greater implications for understanding the relationship between Britain and Israel. It seems quite fitting that as we are approaching the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Britain’s policies towards Israel appear to be moving full circle. 1917 drew a firm line marking Britain’s official political involvement in Palestine, which initiated the legitimisation of the state of Israel at the end of the British Mandate period, and has since been the crux of a conflict that is seemingly, and allegorically, infinite.

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Abraham’s family tree, according to followers of the British Israel movement, who believe the Anglo-Saxon people to be one of the lost tribes. Note the importance of 1917.

British politics of today remains comparable with historic policies which have provided unwieldy support for Israel.  Both Conservative and Labour party leaders have affirmed directly their stand with Zionism through the potent platforms that are the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel respectively. Both have also stated that the deligitimisation of Israel will not be tolerated. Nick Clegg has also experienced an allegiance to Zionism, although that has been somewhat more wavering. His focus on human rights for Palestinians and his controversial statement on Israeli settlements caused a contentious relationship between the Lib Dems and the British and international Jewish community. He soon backed down on realisation that he was not winning any friends, and the looming influence of the Israeli lobby came to the fore. Ever since, his policies, or at least his rhetoric on Israel has backpedalled.  Clegg apologetically announced to a luncheon of the Liberal Democrat friends of Israel in 2010 that he was engaged in ‘clarifying misunderstandings’.[1] But these ‘misunderstandings’ resurfaced their ugly head when in 2012 Clegg was quoted as calling Israeli settlements ‘deliberate vandalism’.[2]

Along similar lines, the British government has on the one hand frequently spoken out against Israel’s human rights violations, while on the other astutely performing a delicate rhetorical balancing act ensuring it did not denounce the state of Israel itself. The current emphatic support for Israel echoes Balfour’s words that created the state. The only difference is that, in the present day there is some consideration, rhetorical at least if not political, for the rights of Palestinians.  Whereas in 1917 the cabinet decided to issue a declaration, that favoured the hopes of the European Jewish community, over the rights of the Palestinians already in situ.  Perhaps the patches of human rights rhetoric that have filtered out of Westminster in recent times are words of remorse.  Ultimately however, it is clear that the legacy of the Balfour Declaration cannot be undone, and in the eyes of the British Government the legitimacy of the state of Israel will remain intact.

Theories of Political Science argue that in order to understand a country’s foreign policy you have to look at its internal politics[3]. In the UK, as with most democratic political systems, the Left/Right divide appears to be the chief divisor in terms of foreign policy.  On observation of Britain’s policy towards Israel however, this is not the case. Historically the three main parties across the left-right spectrum have all comparatively fluctuated in their support for Israel.  The Late Margaret Thatcher went some way in her Conservative leadership to solidifying this relationship, by being the first serving Prime Minister to visit Israel in 1986.[4]  Her other strategy at a local level involved securing votes within the Jewish community in London.  

Today’s parties do not differ greatly in their overall support. The divergence in opinion between parties is now closed, which may be the result of intense pro-Israeli lobbying.  Channel 4’s Dispatches[5] concluded that pro-Israel influencers have been bankrolling MP’s in all three major political parties. Even without taking on in-depth research, the uniformity of opinion across the parties is ironically reflected in the names of the more influential groups; the Conservative Friends of Israel, The Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and last but not least, the Labour Friends of Israel. Comparatively, Labour has a ‘Friends of Palestine and the Middle East’, while the Conservatives have no such party.

So is this century-old relationship a circle of policy, or a disbandment of policy circles? Some would suggest precisely the latter, and that Britain’s input in the Palestine-Israel conflict is, and has always been, party partisan.  I would strongly disagree and use a comparison between David Lloyd George’s Liberal Party and Nick’s Clegg’s Liberal Democrats as a direct example of how policies of the same party evolve to suit the political landscape by which they are surrounded. What has been clear, throughout this century of change and much that has stayed the same, is that Britain has kept up a great appearance of power and influence in its policy towards Israel, but in reality has floundered in its capability to convince and coerce internally.

[1] The Jewish Chronicle ‘Nick Clegg: we got it wrong on Israel’. http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/41015/nick-clegg-we-got-it-wrong-israel

[3] James D Fearon. ‘Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy and Theories of International Relations’. Annual Review of Political ScienceVol. 1: 289-313

[4] Haaretz. Margaret Thatcher, the British PM who praised Israel’s ‘pioneer spirit’. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/margaret-thatcher-the-british-pm-who-praised-israel-s-pioneer-spirit.premium-1.514374

[5] Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby – Dispatches

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLm7CXywmGc