Review: Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman

April 7th, 2019

I admit to being a bit of a latecomer to this party, having only discovered Rutger Bregman following his extraordinary non-interview on Fox News recently. This is his best-selling book laying out the case for a number of reforms, some quite moderate (like universal basic income, which even Richard Nixon advocated) and others far more radical (abolishing borders between countries).

These are pretty much all good ideas, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them utopian.

And also, for some strange reason, he’s not mentioned some of the great experiments in social change including the independent Georgian republic of 1918-21, or the kibbutz movement in Israel. Well worth the read.

Don’t vote

April 7th, 2019

If having a prime minister who faces a number of serious criminal charges doesn’t bother you because you think it’s all “fake news” cooked up by the left-wing media, you can relax because polls show that most people agree with you, and that he’ll be re-elected. Don’t vote.

Read the rest of my article on The Times of Israel.

Review: A Berliner’s Luck – Surviving the Third Reich and World War II, by Fred A. Simon

March 25th, 2019

This short memoir, written by the author when in his eighties, looks back at his experience as a German soldier during the Second World War. I would not recommend it to others.

Sometimes in memoirs, written many years after the fact, a kind of maturity is allowed to creep in, and the author may have some insights in their own behaviour or thoughts when they were younger. Not in this case.

Fred Simon, raised in the USA, was living in Berlin in 1941, drafted in the Panzer Grenadiers, and sent off to fight on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded. Later, while deployed in the Netherlands, he was sent over to the island of Texel to help suppress the rebellion by Georgian troops there.

Not once in this memoir is there any sense at all that Nazi Germany may have been doing the wrong thing, or even that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Simon has lots to say about his many girlfriends, and how he often managed to trick people into getting his way, but not a word about the war, the Nazi regime, and the war crimes in which he certainly played a part.

He wound up living in the USA, where he raised a family, played a role in the Boy Scouts, and never looked back in any meaningful way at what he had done or who he really was.

Review: Forgotten Legion: Sonderverbünde Bergmann in World War II, 1941-1945 by Eduard Abramian with Antonio J. Muñoz

March 24th, 2019

There is a tendency, I think, among some who write about the Nazi Germans to become – too put it mildly – somewhat too close to their subject. That is the case with this book by a young Armenian historian.

It describes in great detail but without much of a coherent narrative, the story of the Bergmann battalion, a notorious unit set up by German military intelligence to run commando raids and carry out acts of sabotage in the Soviet controlled areas of Transcaucasia.

The battalion, which included volunteers from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus, was widely praised by the Germans for its effectiveness. The author of this volume goes further, citing many examples of the unit’s bravery, singling out some of its soldiers for their heroism.

By the end, we finally hear the author’s own voice, when he writes: “In this author’s opinion, one thing is clear: whatever the end of that terrible war could have been, the Armenian people were the victors, as they developed an excellent reputation, both in the former Soviet Union and in Europe, of their devotion and love for their people and country.”

And remember: he’s not writing about the large numbers of Armenians, Georgians and other who fought bravely in the Red Army against the fascists. He’s describing those who fought with the fascists, against partisans and others who were resisting the Nazis. This is a one-sided, partisan account that, unfortunately, takes the wrong side.

It’s time to talk about peace, not separation

March 19th, 2019

The late Amos Oz had a very appealing way of describing his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “I don’t believe in a sudden burst of mutual love between Israel and Palestine,” he would say. “I expect a fair and just divorce.” …

Read my full blog in the Times of Israel here.

Review: How to Cure a Fanatic, by Amos Oz

March 17th, 2019

This tiny little book, which you can read in under an hour, is a reminder of how much Amos Oz is missed today.

The book consists of two short speeches he gave in Germany in 2002, then a few pages about the “Geneva Accords” of 2003, and then a look back a decade later in an interview.

Oz was a leading light of the Israeli peace camp, a man who believed strongly in a two-state solution and above all, in the fact that both sides in the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians could be right, and have rights. Sadly, few today at least among the political elites of Israel and Palestine, seem to share this view.

And as for how to cure a fanatic, he has some simple strategies, including reading literature and having a sense of humour.

Amos Oz was arguably Israel’s greatest writer, but he was also one of its most decent human beings. May his memory be blessed.

Review: A Freewheelin’ Time, by Suze Rotolo

March 13th, 2019

It was one of the iconic images of the early 1960s: a young Bob Dylan walking down a snow-covered street in Manhattan, looking down, while a young woman clutching his left arm walks with him, facing the camera, a knowing smile on her face.

The photo appears on the cover of Dylan’s second, breakthrough album, and the woman in the picture is Suze Rotolo.

Rotolo was a 17 year old girl when she met Dylan, who was three years older, and the time she spent with him was the time he made the transition from unknown folk singer to superstar.

This could have been a book only about Dylan, and a lot of it is, but it’s also Rotolo’s own story, a story of love and frustration and betrayal, and of a young woman’s coming of age in Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

Though the chronology can be a bit confusing, the story is actually quite well told.

Sadly, Rotolo passed away just two years after writing the book.

Review: Between Friends, by Amos Oz

March 2nd, 2019

I lived for nearly 18 years on a kibbutz. Amos Oz, who passed a way a few weeks ago, also lived for a number of years on a kibbutz. This collection of stories takes place on a fictional kibbutz, with a cast of characters who pop up in each other’s stories and lives.

One of the striking things about living on a kibbutz was how one knew people as neighbours, friends, co-workers, lovers. No one was just “the guy who repaired the shoes” or “the woman who worked with the chickens”. Everyone was three dimensional, and that is clear in these wonderful stories.

It is a sensitive, accurate, and somewhat sad account of what used to be called “the experiment that did not fail”. The final chapter, “Esperanto” was especially beautiful, and one has to wonder if Oz was deliberatedly comparing the twin dreams of a universal language and that of a more equal and more just society.

Review: Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

February 25th, 2019

Having just read a couple of non-fiction books about the British people who worked for a German victory in the Second World War, I thought it was time to read a work of fiction on the same subject.

In Kate Atkinson’s novel, Juliet Armstrong, an 18 year old woman is recruited to MI5 to participate in an intelligence gathering operation targetting British fascists.

She sits in a flat next door to one in which a British agent posing as a Gestapo officer carries out clandestine meetings with people who are keen to be of service to the Third Reich.

The flat is bugged and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the conversations that take place there.

She is also given another, related task which brings her into contact with other wannabe Quislings.

The book moves back and forth between 1940 and the years after the war, when Juliet works for the BBC.

There are secrets and twists galore, but one’s enjoyment of the book will depend entirely on whether one enjoys Juliet’s company.

I find her to be a most enjoyable character, though I felt let down by the ending, which did feel somewhat rushed.

Nevertheless, an excellent story, highly recommended.

Review: Sara, by Garth Ennis

February 13th, 2019

This new graphic novel is a beautifully-drawn, powerfully-told story about a group of seven Soviet female snipers during the Second World War. Sara, the best shot in the group, is plagued by doubts about the Soviet regime and struggles to suppress her desire to speak out. A chilling tale of sacrifice and revenge.