Why Israel is losing the battle in Britain’s trade unions

Britain’s trade unions were not always hostile to Israel. One doesn’t have to go back very far to remember a time when they would invite representatives from the Histadrut to speak at union conferences. And the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body representing 6.2 million union members, is still on record supporting a two-state solution and Israel’s right to exist.

This is my first blog post for the Times of Israel. Read the full post here.

If you care about your privacy and use Gmail, read this

gmailI recently read Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, which describes a world in which a Facebook-Google-like company takes over people’s lives and brings about a complete end to privacy. Some would describe the book as being visionary, or a warning. I think it actually didn’t go far enough.

Increasingly, we live in a world without privacy.

Millions of us wear devices that track our every step (I use FitBit for that) and we record every morsel of food we eat (my food diary of choice these days is MyNetDiary). We use web browsers or even computers (such as Chromebooks) that track our every step on the net, every term we have ever searched for, every byte we have ever downloaded.

Soon, we’ll have Google Glasses and driverless cars and countless other bits of hardware and software that turn our lives into an open book. And that’s a book which is open not to the security services of governments which we, in the end, elect, but to the data mining departments at faceless, privately-owned giant corporations which are accountable to no one.

One could withdraw from all this, close down accounts on Facebook and Twitter, get rid of that FitBit, and ditch the mobile phone which can pinpoint exactly where we are at any moment. Or one could take some simple steps that would radically improve one’s privacy without totally disconnecting from everything.

An easy one is Gmail.

I’ve ditched it and you can too.

When Gmail came on the scene, it was an exceptionally good web-based email client, and those of us who were using Hotmail (later purchased by Microsoft) or Yahoo Mail, eventually moved over to Google’s service. There was, however, one tiny little problem with Gmail.

It exists for just one reason: to help Google make money. Google is not in business to make the world a better place (OK, they say they are, but they’re lying). They are in business to make a profit. Gmail is a very important part of their business model.

They give it away for free (mostly), and crushed the competition by giving away more gigabytes of storage than anyone else.

Millions of us signed up to use it. And we discovered, if we were paying attention, how Google benefited from this: they data mine our emails. We turn over the content of our address books and our emails, including attachments, to Google, and in exchange they mine the data to find ways to sell us things.

If Google knows that you are discussing having a holiday in Spain with your friends and family, it will helpfully show you advertisements promoting various Spanish-related holiday deals — on the same screen as you see your emails.

Google will say in its defense that no one at Google reads your emails. That’s also a lie. While there are no slave-labouring children chained to their desks in Burma while they read your emails, there are massive server farms with countless thousands of powerful computers — and they are reading your emails.

That’s how Google makes it money from Gmail — by selling your most private information to anyone willing to pay for it, in order to sell you a product or service.

Now Google is not alone in doing this, and Facebook is possibly an even more egregious violator of your private space. Facebook’s business model is also to sell your information to advertisers, and they’re very good at this.

But the difference between using Gmail and using Facebook is an important one: if you quit Facebook, you lose access to all your friends and contacts who are, for better or worse, using the space.

But if you quit Gmail, you can move to an alternative web-based email platform and keep all your emails, all your contacts, as if nothing changed.

You use Facebook (and Twitter and LinkedIn and other social networks) to stay in touch with people who are part of closed digital ecosystems.

But you use Gmail as one of many possible email clients and quitting Gmail doesn’t mean you stop using email.

I’ve seen the difference between using Gmail and using a service that you may have to pay for (but which doesn’t run ads) summed up in this way: for Google, you are not a client, you are an asset.

I’d rather be a client than an asset.  Let me explain why.

I’d rather pay a small amount of money to not see any ads — and more important to protect my privacy from the prying eyes of private corporations aiming to know me better in order to sell me more.

Most of the web-based email services out there are not much better than Gmail when it comes to privacy. But many of them acknowledge the privacy issues raised by Gmail’s practice.

When Microsoft launched Outlook.com as a replacement for Hotmail, it challenged Google on this very issue. In an online table comparing their service to Google’s and Yahoo’s, Microsoft writes that Outlook.com (unlike Gmail and Yahoo Mail) “doesn’t serve targeted ads based on email contents”.

But of course Microsoft is hardly to be trusted with one’s privacy any more than Google is. And one of the “advantages” of using it, they claim, is its tight integration with Facebook, Skype and Twitter. In other words, sharing your personal information across all those platforms rather than letting Google have it. Why do I not feel any more secure reading this?

If you don’t want to be anyone’s “asset” and are willing to pay a company a small amount of money to provide you with a web-based email service, here are the things you should be looking at:

  • How much would it cost?
  • What’s the company’s policy — and record — on privacy?
  • Can I easily migrate all my Gmail contacts and content (emails I’ve sent and received) to the new service?

fmThe service I’ve chosen is Fastmail — an Australian based company that’s been around for 15 years, longer than Gmail.

For a time it was owned by Opera, the Norwegian browser company, but became independent recently as its original owners bought it back.

Here’s how Fastmail stacks up on the issues I raised above:

Cost: The most basic plan is just $10 per year, but that wouldn’t be very useful if you’re a serious email user. I am a very serious user, and I’ve gone for the Enhanced Plan — $40 per year, for which I receive 15 GB of email storage. All my emails in recent years total up to barely a third of that, so it’s plenty of room for most people. So I’m paying £2.00 a month for the privilege of privacy — and for a first-class, extremely fast and intuitive email server.

Fastmail’s privacy: This is a company that really does take privacy seriously. They not only show you no ads and sell your information to no one, but their website goes on at some length about privacy laws in Australia and much more. While there is no guarantee that they will be 100% better than Google, they’re already a lot better by not selling your information to anyone.

Migrating from Gmail: I admit that this had me worried. But actually, Fastmail has a one-click IMAP migration button. You basically tell it your email address on Gmail and your password there, and it goes to work. When it’s done, it sends you an email telling you how many emails it’s imported and where (into which folders) it has put them. It was completely painless. For the handful of people who may write to me at my old Gmail address (see more on this below), I’ve simply instructed Gmail to forward my mail to Fastmail, which it does.

But wouldn’t I have to inform everyone that I no longer have a Gmail address?

I don’t recommend that people use email addresses given to them by their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or web-based email companies. We need the flexibility to change ISPs and change web-based email providers whenever we want to. That’s why my own email address isn’t a Fastmail address or a Gmail address — it’s a labourstart.org address and I’ve had the same one for some 16 years, even though I’ve used a wide range of ISPs and web-based email companies over those years. Getting one’s own domain name is relatively cheap and if you can afford it, set up a permanent email address that will stay with you for life.

I’ve used Fastmail on and off in the past, but am committed to it now and encourage everyone who’s using Gmail, Outlook.com or Yahoo Mail to consider making the shift.

Click here to learn more.

Think the BBC’s coverage of Gaza is unbalanced? Check out the Guardian

Three hours after the end of the 72-hour ceasefire, Israeli finally retaliated with air strikes.  Hamas missiles were fired at a range of different target’s in southern parts of Israel.

The BBC headline at the moment reads:

Gaza rockets fired as ceasefire ends
Palestinian militant group Hamas rejects any extension of the three-day Gaza ceasefire, with rockets fired at Israel as the truce ends.

That seems a fair statement of things. But here’s what the Guardian leads with:

Israel orders response to rockets fired from Gaza
A rocket trail over the northern Gaza Strip after the expiration of the 72-hour ceasefire with Israel.
LIVE Israel claims at least 10 rockets were fired by Hamas after temporary truce expired on Friday morning
LATEST
“The Israel Defence Force has confirmed it has renewed strikes on Gaza:”
Gaza ceasefire ends

Now, Hamas has been threatening to break the ceasefire since it began on Tuesday, so it’s hardly a surprise.

From the BBC account, you’d learn that Hamas is responsible for the renewal of violence.

But from the Guardian, you’d think that the Gaza ceasefire ended because the IDF renewed strikes.

Though it does says that “Israel claims at least 10 rockets were fired”.

The use of the word “claims” in this context is deliberate; while the IDF’s decision to bomb Gaza is taken as a fact, the rocket attacks on Israel (which at least the BBC thinks are real) are cited as “Israeli claims”.

It’s this kind of totally unfair, biased and inaccurate reporting that it helping to whip up anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) hysteria to new levels in Britain — something which, ironically, is the subject of a top Guardian news story today.

Hamas has been defeated – now Israel must seize the opportunity

That headline will seem premature to post people, but any strictly military analysis of what’s happened in the last month confirms Hamas’ defeat.

This was supposed to be a war that would see Tel Aviv go up in flames, and Israeli cities were to be flattened by thousands of Hamas rockets. That didn’t happen. Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system worked exceptionally well.

And though Hamas started the war with its missile attacks, it soon lost the initiative to Israel, which attacked Gaza in force. The result was the destruction of hundreds of missiles, the capture of large numbers of Hamas fighters, and the killing of hundreds more.

Hamas’ “secret weapon” — the vast network of attack tunnels to allow its fighters to enter Israel — has been exposed and largely destroyed.

If this had been any other war, at any other time, the results would be clear to all. Israel’s military has won; Hamas has lost.

But this is war in the age of Twitter — and politics has become the extension of war by other means.

While Israeli forces have routed their Hamas opponents on the ground, in the battlefield of global public opinion, Hamas has the upper hand.

This has happened largely because of Israel’s failure to minimize the number of civilians killed on the Palestinian side.

Israel has made huge efforts to do this, including dropping leaflets from the sky, sending text messages to Palestinian families, and even the practice of hitting buildings that are about to the struck with dud warheads, as a warning. No doubt this has reduced the number of civilian deaths. But it has not been good enough, and that’s not me saying that, it’s President Obama.  And he is right.

There can be no more civilian deaths on either side; this has to stop now.

I believe that a ceasefire will happen, sooner or later, even if all the ceasefires so far have been failures. When that ceasefire does come, its terms will confirm what I have already said.

The latest ceasefire (already broken) saw Hamas back down from all its preconditions, agreeing to quiet in exchange for quiet. It accepted that Israeli forces could remain in place, inside Gaza, during the ceasefire.  It agreed that they could continue to destroy tunnels, if those tunnels were behind Israeli lines.

That was a massive capitulation by Hamas, and evidence of its military weakness.

The question now is, what next? What happens after a ceasefire?

This is where the Israeli leadership needs to show courage, and to take some risks. Because in the immediate aftermath of the eventual ceasefire we’re going to get, we have an historic opportunity to break the deadlock.

Netanyahu and the Israeli right are not going to like this, but this will be the perfect moment for Israel to make some big changes to its policies.

  • Instead of refusing to talk to the Hamas-PLO unity government, Israel should join the USA in welcoming its formation, and welcoming it to peace talks.  Israel should apply an updated version of the old Shemtov-Yariv formula which allowed negotiations with any Palestinians who recognized Israel and repudiated terror.
  • Israel should encourage the Palestinian Authority (PA), possibly with Egyptian help, to immediately take control of security in Gaza and to bring a permanent halt to missile attacks on the Jewish state.
  • Israel and Egypt should end the blockade of Gaza, and together with the PA ensure that the flow of weapons from Iran and elsewhere to Gaza ceases immediately. The same measures that are in place today in the West Bank (where no one speaks of a blockade) should be in place in Gaza as well.
  • Israel should welcome the PA’s application to become full members of the United Nations, and should offer to be the first state in the world to welcome a full Palestinian ambassador to present his credentials to the Israeli President in Jerusalem.
  • Israel should announce that it embraces the principles of the Geneva Accord and welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative, is prepared to give up land for peace, and to close down the settlements.

I admit that it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu and his right-wing allies embracing any of these points. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Netanyahu’s party represents a small fraction of Israeli voters (only 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset are held by the Likud). Alternative ruling coalitions are possible, with or without new elections.

It is not guaranteed that Netanyahu will continue to benefit from high levels of public support. Just as there are signs in Gaza of ordinary people growing tired of Hamas, most Israelis want peace and quiet too.

Whoever leads Israel needs to show the same courage that its soldiers have always shown, and to take risks for peace. Because the alternative — endless war — cannot be allowed to happen.

Amnesty lost its way long ago

This article appeared today in the Jewish Chronicle.

Imagine Israel without guns or ammunition, without Iron Dome, as helpless before the armed fanatics of Hamas as Jews had been for centuries. Of course we can’t imagine such a thing. But Amnesty International can.

Its response to the current fighting in Gaza is a campaign to “stop the arms, stop the killing” — and Amnesty is concerned about only one side. They write “The death toll is rising as rockets rain down on the citizens of Gaza … nobody is safe from the indiscriminate bombing. Israel says it’s targeting ‘Hamas operatives’ but most of the dead are civilians.”

No mention of Hamas rocket attacks, terrorist infiltrators, attack tunnels, the right of self-defence, nothing. Israel “says” it’s targeting Hamas fighters, but Amnesty thinks Israel is lying.

Amnesty calls “on the UK government to halt the supply of arms to Israel.”

This view has a long history in Amnesty.

Four years ago, I ran as a candidate for the Board of Amnesty’s UK Section, which has a quarter of a million members. Though only a small fraction of them voted in those elections, I placed fifth out of the ten candidates, four of whom were elected. And I ran on platform explicitly critical of Amnesty’s views on Israel.

Amnesty lost its way a long time ago when it turned against Israel. They’re not alone in that view, which is shared by many in the UK and elsewhere. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Amnesty remains a democratic organisation where the members can change policies.

Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize for good reason. It does fantastic work in defence of human rights. It should not be allowed to sleepwalk its way into irrelevance with these kinds of stupid and uninformed positions on Israel and Palestine. Amnesty needs a wake-up call now.

How to stop Hamas’s terror-blitz on Israel

The Islamist terror group Hamas cannot conquer Israel; in fact, it can’t even run the Gaza Strip.  Unable to provide anything useful for the Palestinians, it engages in endless and pointless confrontations with Israel.

The local population, cowed by terror, is unable to get rid of these gangsters that rule them.

Israel, though not under existential threat, faces up to 10,000 rockets, hundreds of which have already been fired at it.

Many in Israel and elsewhere have expressed a kind of despair, a “what can you do” attitude.  This was reflected in most media, which point to the seemingly endless nature of the conflict, and the lack of leverage now that the USA seems disengaged, and post-Morsi Egypt without any leverage on the Islamists.

Even a temporary cease-fire, let alone a peace agreement, seems impossible.

But I think this is not entirely the case, and I want to make a few comments on a number of ways out — ways to put an end to Hamas’s rocket terrorism.

1. The IDF.  The common wisdom says that there is no military solution to terrorism.  But this is untrue.  Throughout history, terrorist movements have been crushed by superior military force many times.  Israel has learned from experience that all steps forward in a peace process are conditional upon its own military strength.  Sadat came to Jerusalem and signed the Camp David accord only after the Israeli military inflicted crushing defeats on the Egyptian army in 1967 and again in 1973.  Arafat and the PLO finally embraced a two-state solution and recognized Israel in 1988, in a prelude to Oslo, only after the first Palestinian intifada fizzled out.  Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of military force in ending conflict; it’s an important ingredient in persuading one side (or both) to lay down arms and start talking.

2. The USA.  While Secretary of State John Kerry may have left the Middle East without having made any progress on restarting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, it’s not true that the Obama administration doesn’t care.  They do care, as the region seems to be spiralling out of control, and they understand that the US has a strategic interest not only in a strong Israel, but in Hamas’s defeat.  And while the USA may have little or no leverage with the Islamists, it has lots of leverage in the region – including Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.  

3. The Palestinian Authority.  This is the key.   Mahmoud Abbas has called on Israel to show restraint.  What he needs to do is call on Hamas to show restraint.  Abbas needs to make it absolutely clear to Hamas that if it wants to be part of the unity government, the condition for that is stopping the rocket terror.   (One can argue that Abbas has essentially said this in the past, declaring the newly-formed unity government will respect the Oslo accords and is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel based on a two-state solution.)  Abbas is not making this clear, and those who have influence on him (and this includes Israel and the USA) must press him to press his Hamas partners.

4. Iran.  The mullahs in Tehran have in recent weeks become the darlings of the West.  No longer seen as a nuclear-armed Third Reich aiming to obliterate Israel, the Iranians are now seen as partners in nuclear disarmament and, more important, in stabilizing Iraq in face of the Sunni Islamist threat.  In Iraq, Iran, the USA, Israel, and the Kurds are all on the same side in battling the terrorist group now known as Islamic State.  The USA and others can use this de facto alliance, and Iran’s desire to appear to be committed to de-escalation in the region, to get Tehran to place a phone call to Gaza and tell their Hamas clients to back down.

5. The Palestinian people.  The people of Gaza were terrorized into accepting Hamas rule, and have been silent even as their Hamas rulers have brought down utter destruction upon them.  From time to time, when things are relatively quiet, there are signs of unrest, such as the occasional strike by workers.  We know from history that sometimes, wars end when a people decides to get rid of the rulers who caused the wars, as happened across Europe in 1918.  I’m not expecting a Gazan uprising any time soon, but the conditions for a “Palestinian Spring” exist in widespread disillusionment with the corrupt warlords of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

6. World public opinion.  Being outside the region, one often feels powerless to do anything.  But actually, the world does have leverage — if not directly on the gangsters running the Islamist groups in Gaza, at least on the Palestinian Authority (which is completely dependent on international support and goodwill) and on Iran, which arms and pays for the terrorist gangs in Gaza.  The USA, and to an even larger degree, the countries of the European Union, have real leverage here.  They can pressure Abbas and the Iranians to tell Hamas to back down, and should do so.

Stopping Hamas’s rocket blitz against Israel will not be easy.

But a combination of precision military strikes and diplomatic pressure targetting the Palestinian Authority and Iran will work.

In the long run, the Palestinian people themselves will need to stand up and say to the criminal gang that calls itself Hamas — enough is enough.

That day may be a long way off, but it will happen, and when the Palestinians have had enough, there will be peace. 

Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects

This article appeared in Solidarity.


After Labour’s abysmal showing in the Newark by-election, which closely followed on its poor showing in the European elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the party faces defeat yet again in the 2015 general election. That would mean another five years of Tory rule, something which would be a disaster for working people in this country.

There’s considerable discontent and unease in Labour’s ranks, and disappointment at Ed Miliband’s role as party leader, making the question of who should lead Labour into the election a crucial one. Yet there are very few good suggestions.

Tony Blair seems to want to return to political life, but that’s not going to happen. Gordon Brown already proved himself a completely ineffective campaigner when he lost to Cameron in 2010. Ed’s brother David has wandered off to do good work for the International Rescue Committee. There seems to be no one around to step in and provide leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.

But let’s try to imagine for just a moment what the ideal Labour leader might look like.

First of all, if Labour is to be in touch with the party’s working-class roots, to re-capture those communities from UKIP, Labour should choose someone who shares those roots, who comes out of the working class.

Second, Labour needs to rebuild its links — already quite tenuous — with the trade union movement. The 54 TUC-affiliated unions have nearly six million members, all of them potential voters, and a leader who could appeal to them specifically would do well in attracting many of them back to the party that bears their name. That leader would also need to appeal to the many millions of working people who are not currently in trade unions, and who often do not vote — the people who feel excluded, disengaged and ignored.

Third, Labour needs to understand how deeply disillusioned voters are with the political class. Its next leader shouldn’t come out of the ranks of Labour’s contingent in Westminster. Labour needs a fresh face, someone who’s not been an MP or Minister.

And finally, the time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — for Labour to have a female leader. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Conservatives accepted that a woman could lead a party (albeit with disastrous results for the country). Why has Labour in opposition and in power always been led by those who are “stale, pale and male”, as I once heard them described?

The person who I heard that from more than a decade ago was running the TUC’s innovative experiment in trade union revitalisation — the Organising Academy. Her name was Frances O’Grady and today she’s the first female general secretary of the TUC in its history.

I think she should also be first female leader of the Labour Party, and the sooner the better.

I doubt very much if Frances would want to do this.

And yet she meets all the criteria I mentioned above. She’s a committed trade unionist, on the Left, articulate, experienced and a proven leader.

If anyone could re-energize the Labour Party, she’s the one.

People who can’t bear the thought of David Cameron being re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 should be prepared to take risks, to do what’s not been done before.

That’s why Labour supporters should launch a ‘Draft Frances’ movement today.

 

Life with a Chromebook: The first month

acer-c720About a month ago, my very expensive and much-loved MacBook Air died a sudden and painful death.  The screen fractured, initially displaying some thin vertical lines that I could ignore, and then becoming completely useless.

The “geniuses” at the Apple Store “Genius Bar” told me that it was all my fault and couldn’t possibly be an issue with how the thing is manufactured, and as a result, it wasn’t covered by the warranty and a repair would cost around £380 (US$636).

For that price, I thought, I could pick up a couple of brand new Chromebooks.

So I bought one (an Acer C720) and have been using it for 28 days.

(Meanwhile, the corpse of my brand-new MacBook Air sits on a shelf as I try to decide what to do with it.  Any suggestions welcome.)

There are basically four kinds of laptops you can own these days.  Most people buy Windows laptops.  Those with a bit more money buy Macs.  (A word of warning to them: don’t let your screen fracture.)  The more ambitious configure their laptops to run a variant of GNU Linux.  I’ve done all three over the years.

The fourth kind of laptop is what is properly known as a “thin client”, meaning a laptop with little or no actual software or memory.  It’s essentially a web browser, with screen and keyboard.

Like everyone else, I thought the problem here is what could I do with a thin client — don’t I need a “proper” laptop?

Short answer — no, I don’t.

Now this is not for everyone, but everything I did on the MacBook Air (and on my desktop, which is a Mac Mini) I can do on the Chromebook.

This includes the following:

  • Email: I’ve been using a web-based email system anyway, no need for a local client.  (They all work well here.)
  • Web: Goes without saying.  Limited to Chrome, but I don’t mind.
  • Social networks: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn all work fine.
  • Photo editing: I’ve only used Pixlr anyway 90% of the time (to crop or shrink images), and never owned Photoshop.
  • File editing and file transfer: I use ShiftEdit — works pretty much as well as using a more conventional text editor and dedicated FTP client.  Certainly useful for when I’m away from the office.
  • Music: I’ve been a Spotify fan for some time now, and don’t keep music on a hard drive anyway.
  • Word processing and spreadsheets: Google Docs is a reasonable substitute for OpenOffice and LibreOffice; I haven’t used Microsoft Office for many years.
  • Evernote: The Chrome app works like a charm.

So what’s missing?  It’s not possible that I can do absolutely everything with a ChromeBook, right?  I mean, it costs one fourth the price of a MacBook Air.

There is one thing: Skype.  It doesn’t work.  But I don’t care — I never use Skype on a laptop anyway.  I use it on my iPod touch, or a phone when I had one.

So what do I miss about my Mac Book Air?

The money I wasted buying it.