Banning the burka: is it British?

There’s been a lot of talk in the press lately about whether or not British women should be wearing the Islamic face veil, following the proposal for a burka ban made by ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

In the Times today, Alice Thomson wrote that she agreed with Farage because:

“It allows for no communication, no empathy and it’s deeply impractical.”

Meanwhile over at the Independent Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recently praised France for moving closer to a ban, saying it was about protection:

“All the Muslim women I know detest this garment but are afraid to say so because it is a mark of disloyalty.”

But when I asked people on the streets of Islington, not everybody agreed:


Reflections on a visit to Poland, 65 years after Auschwitz was liberated

commemorating the dead at Birkenau concentration camp


 Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The concentration remains perhaps the most potent symbol of the Nazi Holocaust, the massacre that cost the lives of six million Jews and millions more communists, homosexuals and other minorities.               

In March 2007 I visited Poland with a Jewish group to trace the history of that time, to look into the past and the past of many members of my community. Below I share my experiences visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, Madjanek and countless other sites where the Nazis carried out their genocide.           

I write this having just walked out of Birkenau concentration camp, the culmination of a four day visit to Poland.  It has been an incredible and enlightening journey for me, one that I hope many people of my generation will be able to undertake.            

 We were a group comprising of people of various ages and backgrounds; British, Australian and South African, religious and secular.  All different, yet all the same.  United by a common desire to connect with our heritage and to seek a better understanding of the atrocities of the past.            

 In the four days I have spent in Poland I have stood in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek, I have walked the streets of Warsaw and Lublin and I have heard first hand harrowing stories of lives uprooted by the Nazis.  I am exhausted, both physically, and mentally.  But even more so, in a way that I did not anticipate, I am uplifted and I am inspired.               

 Most of all, I am proud.  I walked out of Birkenau along the train tracks, where so many arrived to meet a tragic and horrific fate.  I walked straight down the middle, between the tracks, a free Jew able to choose both my literal and metaphorical steps.  For me, this was a symbol of defiance, in complete contrast to those who came in cattle trucks, stripped of every human dignity, never to make the return journey.           

 That sense of defiance has permeated my time in Poland.  I had found Warsaw, my first stop, a grey, cold, broken city, with little to recollect the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life.  Krakow was the complete opposite, a place that they had tried to destroy, but that had survived and remained alive.            

human hair the Nazis took from the victims of the gas chambers


 We spent the weekend in the old district of Kazimierz, home to many of the Jews before they were exiled to the ghetto.  The weekend had coincided with the anniversary of the death of a reknowned Rebbe (religious leader), so the place was flooded with thousands of Hassidic Jews in glorious fur Shreimels, come to visit his grave and commemorate his death.             

Krakow is but a fragment of what it once was, a ghost town of empty houses and synagogues, the remaining testimony to centuries of life there.     

There are synagogues on every corner, an insight into just how vast the community once was, and it saddened me to see these places mere shadows of their former selves.  Yet, praying on Friday night in the one still active synagogue, with groups from across the world, was a poignant and inspirational experience.           

 What I have left Poland with is an overwhelimg sense of triumph and victory.  The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, and sought to obliterate every last remnant of Jewish life in Europe.  They stripped away everything the Jews had, the massive stacks of shoes and piles of hair are just one heartrending example.  But they still did not suceed. Sixty five years on, Birkenau is in ruins.             

a Polish survivor shows photos of her husband, killed 67 years ago for helping Jews


  Poland has brought a new admiration and appreciation of what heroism really is.  During the trip we encountered bravery in many forms, at Schindler’s factory or speaking to an elderly Polish woman whose husband was killed 67 years ago to the day for helping ghetto Jews.     

We heard stories of resistance, both spiritual, for example celebrating the festival of Succot in the camps, or the physical uprising in Warsaw.  For me, this is heroism it its finest incarnation.                

 The great Jewish scholar Maimonides said ‘each person must see themselves as if the entire world were held in balance and any deed they might do could tip the scales.     

If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that one person really can make a difference.  And, even more so, that we must.             

The rail tracks at Birkenau. These led many straight to the gas chambers









Here’s not to you, Mrs Robinson

It’s been a bad week for political wives.

In Northern Ireland, Mrs. Robinson jokes are enjoying a comeback following the revelations about the First Minister’s spouse Iris and her affair with a teenager.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, former presidential candidate John Edwards’ wife Elizabeth has been outed in a new book on the 2008 campaign as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.” 

Today in the Times though, Melanie Reid struck up a defence for Iris Robinson, calling on us to “be celebrating Iris for her modernity, her spirit, her black lacy underwear and her sheer chutzpah in breaking centuries of convention.”

Reid said she is “a feminist icon” for breaking the mould, and went as far as to say ‘Atta girl”.

Excuse me? Let’s just refresh. Leaving aside the alleged political misconduct, this is Reid’s description of a woman in her mid sixties who has had three affairs, one with someone young enough to be her grandson. The two apparently got close after the boy’s father died.

Reid’s stance – that Iris is some 2010 incarnation of girl power – is appalling. Feminism is many things, but it is not this.

If Iris was a man, we would, quite rightly, be railing against a pervy middle-aged politician for sleazy antics with a teen.

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Filling the Gossip Girl gap: Life Unexpected

For all you teen show lovers out there, March is a long time away. But here’s a look at a new drama series about to hit US screens that could well fill the gaping gap left by Gossip Girl’s absence.

Life Unexpected

Life Unexpected premieres next week on The CW. For the uninitiated, that is the network behind such greats as Gossip Girl, 90210, America’s Next Top Model and One Tree Hill. Should be a guaranteed success then? Well no, because they also spawned the less successful (cancelled after a few episodes) The Beautiful Life, so it’s hit and miss.

Happily, based on the previews I’ve seen, Life Unexpected, which you can check out snippets of below, looks like it will fall firmly in the hit category. According to the reputable TeenDramaWhore, the premise is based around:

“15-year-old Lux […] a young girl who is seeking emancipation after spending her life being bounced around foster homes. Since she was never adopted, she needs the signature of her birth parents and sets out to find them. She does (in seemingly record time, mind you) and both are understandably shocked.  All three are then thrown for a loop when the judge, instead of granting emancipation, makes Lux’s parents temporary co-guardians.”

Plenty of dramatic potential. As Entertainment Weekly describe it, the show is “Gilmore Girls-esque and Everwood-y, with a pinch of Juno”. High praise.

But storyline aside, it’s the actors involved who are causing such anticipation (Google blogs gives 8,180,869 hits in a search for the show) .

Why? Because they aren’t exactly new to teenage soap success.

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Gossip boy Josh Schwartz joins Twitter

Now, the teen TV drama Gossip Girl has always been at the forefront of social and technological innovation, as is explained here.

But TV just got that bit more interactive as Josh Schwartz – the man who brought us not only Blair and Serena but also Seth and Summer (RIP) – joined Twitter.

Yes, The OC creator has entered the debate, meaning that watching your favourite TV show can be a truly interactive experience. Don’t like what happened. Tell Josh via Twitter, as a certain gossip columnist has been doing.

It also means fiction and reality can collide in peculiar ways. Blair Waldorf, meet your maker.

Why 2010 will be a gleeful year

There comes a point in every girl’s life when they have to move past the TV habits of their teenage years. Having watched four episodes of new show Glee, it seems I’m not quite there yet.

I just fancy the teacher rather than the students.

Glee has all the traits of any good, old-fashioned high school show. It’s got laugh-out-loud geekiness equal to Zac, Screech and the gang in Saved by the Bell and the will-they / won’t-they formula of Dawson’s Creek. The cast is every bit as attractive as those fielded by The OC / Gossip Girl maestro Josh Schwartz.

All good, but not alone enough to guarantee Glee will be the mega-hit it has already proved in America, where it has been Golden Globe nominated. So why all the song and dance about it?

Song and dance is exactly why, actually.

Glee is what High School Musical would look like if Disney allowed for irreverent digs at disabled people, gay dads and teen pregnancy scandals.
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