Monthly Archives: July 2005

How Canada could learn a language lesson from Israel

The attractive young lady says “shalom” and right away I know I’m in trouble. I’m just entering El Al’s special security screening, as much psychological as technological. And I can’t decide whether it’s polite or patronizing to respond with the only word of Hebrew I know (which is also “shalom”). It’s a very Canadian moment. In the face of elaborate precautions against international terrorism and anti-Semitism, I’m paralyzed by a language issue. And uneasily aware that standing speechless at El Al security with beads of sweat forming on your forehead is not a promising start to a trip.

Ultimately I settle for “Hi,” and after having my luggage passed through their special X-ray machine and my brain through their special psychological understanding I am cleared to fly to Tel Aviv (on a trip sponsored by the Canada-Israel Committee). I concluded that they had other things on their minds than whether it was dorky for a tourist to mispronounce their equivalent of “Hello” (and that my airplane seat bore no useful resemblance to a bed). I turned out to be right on both counts. The story of language in Israel is an amazing one not least, to a Canadian, because of how relaxed everyone seems to be about it.

Israel’s familiar language miracle is the resurrection of Hebrew as a vernacular rather than liturgical language. As Paul Johnson’ s History of the Jews notes, when Eliezer ben Yehuda went to Palestine in 1881 and insisted he and his wife, née Deborah Jonas, speak Hebrew to each other, “Theirs was the first Hebrew-speaking household in the country (indeed in the world) and Ben Yehuda’s first son, Ben Zion, was the first Hebrew-speaking child since antiquity.” For Israel to resurrect Hebrew was at least as improbable as if the United States had sought to revive Latin in 1776. Indeed more so, for there were more people capable of conversing in Latin in 1776 than in Hebrew in 1881, and it had been a living language more recently. But, my goodness, it has succeeded. Continue reading

The left on China: see, hear and speak no evil

Woo hoo. Gonna have a nuclear war. Tens of millions dead! Countless cities laid waste! Bring it on. Yee haw.

If a member of the Bush administration said such a thing it would have raised eyebrows around the world so high as to dent ceilings. So why is it unremarkable when a senior Chinese general says it? We have met the enemy all right.

Maj.-Gen. Zhu Chenghu of the People’s Republic of China told foreign reporters last week that if, in response to some unspecified Chinese action (think island off east coast), “the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition onto the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons…. We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.” Continue reading

Golf is more like religion than I thought

The newspapers tell me there’s a line of golf balls with Bible verses on them. It is a pleasure to return from the Holy Land and find this teed up for me. It’s like a little bit of manna on a tiny white stick.

Harken unto me, O manufacturers. In the Land of Scot have you made balls bearing passages including 2 Timothy 4:7 (“I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”) That one makes some sense, since according to Hebrews 11:1 “faith is … the evidence of things not seen.” Which in my case would include not only improvements in my score but, all too often, my ball itself.

But you also used Ezekiel 46:9 (“But each shall go out straight ahead”) and Isaiah 40:26 (“Lift up your eyes on high and see … not one is missing”) which prompts the immediate thought that many Bible passages must be taken allegorically, as the latter appears to contravene the rule “Lift not thy head until thy follow-through be complete.” The former I do not ever expect to see fulfilled even in an allegorically comprehensible fashion. Continue reading

Cellphones mean never having to give your number

Do you realize I’ve never even made a phone call on my computer? Or owned a BlackBerry? But Og have fire. Og modern. Og see future coming. Og worried.

Og laugh at recent Citizen story that growing number of North Americans have only cellphones, not land lines, to be as isolated from telephone solicitors as if they lived in a cave. There are now 183 million “mobile subscribers” in the United States and 17 million in Canada (all, I note, with driver’s licences), but a proposal last year for “a free, ‘opt-in’ cellphone White Pages in the U.S. was shelved” due to fear of solicitation. And most people don’t list their cellphones in the current mastodons-R-us white pages in Canada. Don’t they want their drapes cleaned and a new long-distance plan?

Alas they do not. The story went on that 30 per cent of residential land lines in the U.S. now have unlisted numbers, costing their owners $1 billion a year in protection money, and in Canada the situation is thought to be similar. Then it quoted the managing partner of “a research firm specializing in phone books” (Og not know this job exist) that one suboptimal result of people eccentrically seeking more control over total strangers shouting in their ears at inconvenient moments about things they don’t want is having to program hundreds of friends’ numbers into our cell phones. Continue reading

No Mideast plan can ignore Israel’s security needs

JERUSALEM – The problems of the Middle East are clearly horrendous. But by coming here, I have learned something important. And bad. The events of the last 12 years have convinced a significant portion of Israeli public opinion that “there is no one for us to talk to on the other side.” How would you like me to persuade them otherwise?

I am here as a guest of the Canada-Israel Committee, in case that affects your judgment about my judgment. We have seen a number of officials and commentators, including some Palestinians, and others whose profession is not public policy. Some were not “hawks” or right-wingers on other issues, let alone ultra-Orthodox, and seemed bitterly disappointed to have been driven to this conclusion. But driven they were.

The background is the upcoming unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, the forced removal of all the roughly 8,000 settlers there and the destruction of their farms. It is painful for Israelis for several reasons. Economically, these settlers are very productive farmers. Theologically, withdrawing them seems finally to give an explicit “No” to the question of a Greater Israel, and could lead to violent resistance, to Jews killing Jews. But there is also bitter non-biblical argument that withdrawing now, in this way, is strategically unwise because it rewards the violence of the “Second Intifada.” Continue reading

A weekend at Walsingford

If the stress, heat and noise of modern urban life are getting you down, how about a little Summer Moonshine? Relax with P.G. Wodehouse in the bucolic calm of Walsingford Hall in the county of Berkshire, where the sun is shining, the inhabitants are puttering about playing tennis, reminiscing about the old days in Poona, and bathing. Uh, except young Tubby Vanringham, just icily informed by his ex-fiancee that the houseboat has been rented and its tenant “will not want to look out of his window and see strangers – fat strangers – hurling themselves past it.”

Alas, all is not well in Walsingford Hall. Indeed, though his wife floats serenely above it all, proprietor Sir Buckstone Abbot is so strapped for cash the wolf is “practically glued to the door.” His daughter Jane, a pillar of strength in dealing with the unavoidable paying guests, is secretly engaged to a penniless cad named Adrian Peake. Tubby and his fiancee are estranged. And the dreadnought Princess von and zu Dzornitzchek, only prospective buyer of Walsingford Hall, will not be amused to find that the stepson she evicted from her life some years back has gotten his revenge by writing a play about her and is now at the hall seeking to detach Jane’s affections from the vile Peake and transfer them to himself.

P.G. Wodehouse may have left behind his most memorable creations, Bertie Wooster and the incomparable Jeeves, in crafting this tale, but his powers of intricate plot and sparkling dialogue are in full bloom. Even Lady Abbott becomes ruffled by the appearance of her long-lost brother Sam, unleashing plot complications that include no fewer than three main characters having their clothes stolen simultaneously in an attempt to stop a fatal set of legal papers being served on the hapless Tubby. Mind you, Wodehouse assures us, her assertion that “you could have knocked me down with a feather” was quite untrue as “The feather had not been grown by bird that could have disturbed her balance for an instant.” Continue reading

We must fight them because they’re evil, not weak

So it comes. A major terror attack against a key U.S. ally, accompanied by wild rhetoric. What are we going to do about it?

The first suggestion of the usual suspects will be to cut and run, to draw the curtains, hide under the bed and hope the bad guys go after someone else. It is the one thing we must not do. To treat these atrocities as a fresh argument, to suggest that Britain should now change its Iraq policy, or that Canada should now bolt from Afghanistan, or even to call it vindication of an earlier argument to avoid such engagements lest it provoke such an attack, is shameful.

To criticize either venture as unjust, or imprudent, is another question. But to refuse to fight someone because they might hit back is the ignoble creed of the bully — and bullies are cowards. Continue reading

Look back in anger, or a history lesson before its time

Good morning, class. Last week we examined how the rich trove of artifacts from ancient Egypt still presents serious problems of individual interpretation and overall meaning. We turn now to the equally puzzling case of Kannada.

We have no shortage of objects from this late second millennium civilization. But we face grave difficulty developing a comprehensive understanding of it. Slide 1 shows a typical early 21st-century plastic bag of a sort that persists in extraordinary quantities, though how so much of it wound up in landfills on the other side of the world has yet to be explained. It is clearly the product of a technologically advanced civilization, both from the materials and the lettering on the attached tab, in Roman script, known from excavations of the Cro-soft culture to indicate a rudimentary but serviceable portable computing device with communications capabilities. So why is the bag itself prominently stamped with primitive hieroglyphics?

The first, a triangle composed of three arrows, suggests a religious doctrine of a closed, harmoniously cyclical cosmos. The number “04” within it, in the more advanced script, may indicate a mystery cult in which a trinity was set before the masses, but acolytes were told of a fourth, central truth. Perhaps that, despite the Great Circle of death and rebirth, this particular item would probably end up in a Chinese landfill. We’re not sure. Continue reading